The New York Times confirmed Saturday that Bill Cunningham, “master photographer,” has died at 87 years of age after suffering a stroke “maybe 10 days” before his death. Up until the stroke, “he was working fine.”
— ⓑιcιcletⓞ (@Bicicleto_ZGZ) June 26, 2016
It’s not often that the photographer at a gathering of stars is as much as celebrity as the stars he’s taking photos of. By the time he had the stroke and died, Bill Cunningham was a star of “not just of the fashion world but also New York,” and he was used to being a reluctant “center of attention” wherever he went with his camera. Even a superstar model like Gigi Hadid described herself as “starstruck” where Cunningham was concerned.
I remember being almost starstruck the first time Bill Cunningham stepped in front of me w/ his camera on the street. He's told incredible —
— Gigi Hadid (@GiGiHadid) June 25, 2016
When Cunningham was training his camera on people at Diane von Furstenberg’s Valentine’s Day NYFW show last February, he was so well known that guests were stroking and fawning on him so that he found himself “photographed, and lionized and leapt upon” in the same way that the supermodels and fashion icons were. According to the Daily Beast, Bill looked as if he’d rather be left to “get on with the job” of taking photos, though he smiled warmly at party-goers and didn’t stop them from expressing their adulation. That was Bill’s attitude right up to the moment of the stroke that eventually took his life.
My favorite pic of Bill Cunningham, taken when Chanel had inexplicably given me a better seat and we swapped places pic.twitter.com/4Kd0Vu54Kn
— stuart emmrich (@StuartEmmrichNY) June 26, 2016
Throughout his life Cunningham snapped photographs of “the partying and the schmoozing” fashion stars when asked to do that, but far more often, he was out on the streets, chronicling changing styles and trends wherever he found them. With an attitude of “different strokes for different folks” fueling his photos, according to the Daily Beast, Bill’s decades long love affair with the clothing of ordinary people and “the buzz and style of the streets” earned him a stellar reputation as the “godfather of street style.”
Bill was renowned in New York for his photo work, and for his easily recognizable look. However much he loved photographing style and fashion on others, spending hours every day “documenting fashion and the fashionable, or what he deemed those things to be,” he rarely appeared in anything but the simplest of outfits himself. Almost without exception (including at the star-studded DVF NYFW show) Cunningham wore a “utilitarian blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers” as he rode around town on one of a series of bicycles.
— Maria Popova (@brainpicker) June 26, 2016
His “frugal” nature would have been happy with the original bicycle too, but all too often Bill had a stroke of bad luck and they were broken or stolen, so that he had to find another one. According to one article, Cunningham had 32 bicycles stolen from him over the years.
— Christina Lee (@NBCchristina) August 12, 2015
Bill’s simplicity of lifestyle was a conscious choice that pervaded every aspect of his life. According to the “marvelous” obituary written by Jacob Bernstein, Bill kept everything simple. He lived for years in a tiny apartment above Carnegie Hall, “surrounded by file cabinets,” and used a shared bathroom.
“He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had, until very recently, for under $3.”
Bernstein explained that Bill believed liberty was more important, and more expensive, than money, and was unwilling to sacrifice that liberty for the sake of a pay cheque.
“Bill had no financial motivation, he was only interested in working.”
The sameness of Bill’s clothing and look certainly made it easy for visitors to NYC to pick out the photographer, something that everyone wanted to say they’d done after the city honored him in 2009 in a very special way. Cunningham was designated a “living landmark” that year by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Art an pop culture lovers around the world mourn the loss of this iconic NYC photographer, whose own life — so often in sharp contrast to the subjects of his photos — was happy and fulfilled in its simplicity.
[Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows]