On Saturday, June 25, the fashion industry lost a legend, an icon, a friend. The New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham will forever be remember as the smiling man on the bike, camera poised to capture the next sartorial peacock that crossed his path. Despite his own small frame, Bill’s presence within the fashion world looms large: To be the subject of his lens was as highly coveted as being the that of Richard Avedon or Steven Miesel, if not more. Being included in his On the Street column in the Sunday issue of the Times was enough to cement or perhaps even launch one’s reputation as a bona fide style icon.
But, despite his influence- Anna Wintour herself is famous for saying “We all get dressed for Bill.”- Cunningham really leaves behind a legacy of kindness, humility, and old-fashioned hard work. In a now-famous sequence of events, Bill quit his first journalism job at the revered Women’s Wear Daily after the publication used his images as the basis for catty critiques about the subjects’ appearances. This egalitarian attitude carried throughout the rest of his career, during which he remained steadfastly committed to capturing fashion as a vehicle of self-expression. With Bill, the true subjects were always, always the clothes. One story, in fact, has a young Bill photographing Greta Garbo on the streets of New York, not recognizing the famous face but being drawn instead by the nutria coat slung over the actress’s shoulder. Indeed, even after the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York launched Cunningham into the public consciousness, he remained undistracted by celebrity, once declaring “My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way.”
Although I was always on the lookout, I never caught a glimpse of Bill as he skirted through the streets of Midtown. In today’s increasingly frightful world, it made me smile to know that Bill was out there somewhere, his smile and effervescent character intact. While my heart aches that such a man is no longer with us, I consider myself lucky to have shared the earth with him for however long, and am grateful that we have access to his decades of photographs documenting the style and spirit of the people of New York. Although Bill made it his life’s work to capture the one-of-a-kind, it’s clear that he was the true original.
Rest in peace, Mr. Cunningham. The streets of New York will never be the same.