When Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill,” she wasn’t just talking about the fashion pack. The original street fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham, who died in New York last Saturday, did not differentiate between celebrities, designer ball gowns or a badly backcombed wig.
His picture that first captured the attention of the New York Times in 1978 was of an off-duty Greta Garbo. He claimed not to have noticed it was Garbo, his eye having been caught instead by the shoulder line of her jacket. If he thought you had style, he would discreetly pounce and snatch a photograph. If you were lucky, your picture would make it into his selection of photographs that were published in his weekly roundup of street style – usually held together by a theme – a much-loved fixture in the New York Times style section.
“He was given two pages every Sunday,” said Stuart Emmrich, the section’s editor for the past 25 years. “Until he was in the hospital two weeks ago – that was the first time in 25 years his column had not run.”
Emmrich attended Cunningham’s funeral, a private Catholic service confined largely to his family, old friends and colleagues. The priest made the point that when Bill first picked up a camera 50 years ago, his life changed. “The priest said for Bill, photography was not a job or career, it was a vocation, almost like he had been called by God to it,” said Emmrich.
Anna Wintour and Annette de la Renta (the widow of Oscar de la Renta) were invited to the funeral and his close designer friends Isabel and Ruben Toledo. But it wasn’t a big fashion crowd. Cunningham was revered by the fashion community, but he spent his entire career maintaining his editorial integrity and keeping a respectful distance.
In 2010 Cunningham was the subject of a feature-length documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, which showed the photographer in his trademark blue janitor’s jacket, fearlessly taking on yellow taxis as he cycled round the streets of New York; patrolling the crowds outside the fashion shows in Paris where he was a fixture each season; squeezing his way into his tiny rent-protected apartment in Carnegie Hall where he shared a bathroom with the rest of the floor and slept above his extensive archive of contact sheets and negatives; and stalking his regular patch on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
A petition is currently under way to erect a statue of the photographer there and for it to be renamed “Bill Cunningham Corner”.
According to Emmrich, Cunningham not only made street-fashion photography an art form but also “forced us all to think about what fashion means in the real world… People can dismiss fashion, can denigrate it, but Bill loved it because people could express their personalities through it. I think his legacy is to remind ourselves that fashion in fact is important – because he thought it was.”
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