Today we sadly say goodbye to the founding genius of street photography – In his nearly 40 years working for the New York Times, Bill Cunningham turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology, chronicling New York’s ever-changing social scene – Words: Nadine Oosthuizen
Today we sadly say goodbye to the legend and genius responsible for the art of street photography, who passed away on Saturday 25 June, at the age of 87 years. In his nearly 40 years working for the New York Times, Bill Cunningham turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology, chronicling New York’s ever-changing social scene.
He found subjects, never wanting to be the subject. With his camera slung around his neck and bicycle for easy mobility, he snapped the life stories of anyone from tweed-wearing blu-bloods on the Upper East Side, to crop-top-wearing Voguers downtown, B-boys in low-slung jeans in Harlem, anyone interesting.
In 2008 Cunningham went to Paris, where he was bestowed with the Legion of Honor by the French Government. In 2009, the New York Landmark Conservatory made him a living landmark, and The New Yorker described him as the city’s unofficial yearbook: “an exuberant, sometimes retroactive embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked”.
Cunningham was admired and beloved by everyone in the fashion industry, not only for his skill, but also for his integrity, precision and journalistic ethics. Asceticism was an absolute hallmark of his brand, obsessively keeping to the philosophy of refusal. Evident in the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, when asked why he ripped up checks from magazines for years, he simply answered “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive”. Not taking money meant no one telling him what to do.
Cunningham didn’t go to movies, nor did he have a TV. He ate breakfast at the same diner every morning for under $3 and lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows of file cabinets that held all his negatives. He slept on a single bed and showered in a shared bathroom. His own style as singular, khaki pants, a blue jacket, a bicycle and his camera.
“His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met,” said New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.
Without Bill Cunningham to take their picture, who will New Yorkers dress up for? No doubt, Bill, you will be missed.