Fashion photo-journalist Bill Cunningham, pictured here pointing his camera while wearing his signature French workman’s jacket, tried to be an inconspicuous observer of New York fashion, but he was as well known to New Yorkers as the naked cowboy. He passed away yesterday at the age of 87. I never met the man, and yet I feel like I lost a friend.
I first became aware of Cunningham when I found a copy of his book Facades for a couple of dollars in a used book store in the early 1980s. The book of fashion photographs documents historic styles, as modelled by his friend Editta Sherman, in front of period buildings around New York. The photographs were taken between 1968 and 1976, when New York was crumbling into disrepair, and was published in 1978. It was a precious addition to my library that I looked at often, and it even became an inspiration for my exhibition Street Style at the Waterloo Region Museum in 2014.
Cunningham began his fashion career as a milliner in the 1950s, turned to journalism, including W magazine, but left after an argument with publisher John Fairchild over who was the more important designer of the time – Yves St. Laurent or Andre Courreges. In 1967 Cunningham began taking pictures of Hippies, which lead to his photography for the book Facades. In 1979 he began working for the New York Times as a freelance fashion photographer and only after being hit by a truck in 1994 did he agree to become a member of the staff for health insurance benefits (Cunningham treasured his freedom over financial success.)
He lived in a rent controlled artist’s studio at Carnegie Hall most of his adult life. The 2010 film Bill Cunningham’s New York documents his daily work as the city tries to find rent controlled premises to relocate the last tenants of Carnegie Hall, including Cunningham and his long time friend and muse Editta Sherman, who died at the age of 101 in 2013. Despite the upheaval, Cunningham was one of those people for whom the glass was always half full, and in his weekly On-The-Street reports for the New York Times, he always brimmed with enthusiasm for whatever style he captured on film.