Mourning the Death of Bill Cunningham
By THE NEW YORK TIMES JUNE 25, 2016
William J. Cunningham (born 1928/9) is a fashion photographer for The New York Times, known for his candid and street photography.
Cunningham dropped out of Harvard University in 1948 and moved to New York, where he initially worked in advertising. Not long after, he quit his job and struck out on his own, making hats under the name "William J." After being drafted and serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York and got a job writing for the Chicago Tribune.
During his years as a writer, he contributed significantly to fashion journalism, introducing American audiences to Azzedine Alaïa and Jean-Paul Gaultier. While working at the Tribune and at Women's Wear Daily, he began taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. As the result of a chance photograph of Greta Garbo, he published a group of his impromptu pictures in the Times in December 1978, which soon became a regular series. His editor, Arthur Gelb, has called these photographs "a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission."
Cunningham photographs people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan every day. Most of his pictures, he has said, are never published. Designer Oscar de la Renta has said, "More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It's the total scope of fashion in the life of New York." Though he has made a career out of unexpected photographs of celebrities, socialites, and fashion personalities, many in those categories value his company. According to David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor asked he be invited to her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media so honored.
In 2008 he was awarded the title Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
In 2010, filmmaker Richard Press and Philip Gefter of The Times produced Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about Cunningham, his bicycle, and his camera, The film was released on March 16, 2011.
Bill on Bill
By BILL CUNNINGHAM
Published: October 27, 2002 in The New York Times.
As a kid, I photographed people at ski resorts -- you know, when you got on the snow train and went up to New Hampshire. And I did parties. I worked as a stock boy at Bonwit Teller in Boston, where my family lived, and there was a very interesting woman, an executive, at Bonwit's. She was sensitive and aware, and she said, ''I see you outside at lunchtime watching people.'' And I said, ''Oh, yeah, that's my hobby.'' She said, ''If you think what they're wearing is wrong, why don't you redo them in your mind's eye.'' That was really the first professional direction I received.
I came to New York in 1948 at 19, after one term at Harvard. Well, Harvard wasn't for me at all. I lived first with my aunt and uncle. I was working at Bonwit's in the advertising department. Advertising was also my uncle's profession. That's why my family allowed me to come here and encouraged me to go into the business. I think they were worried I was becoming too interested in women's dresses. But it's been my hobby all my life. I could never concentrate on Sunday church services because I'd be concentrating on women's hats.
While working at Bonwit's, I met the women who ran Chez Ninon, the custom dress shop. Their names were Nona Parks and Sophie Shonnard. Alisa Mellon Bruce was the silent partner. Those two women didn't want me to get mixed up in fashion either. ''Oh, God, don't let him go near it.'' You have to understand how suspect fashion people were then.
But finally, when my family put a little pressure on me about my profession, I moved out of my uncle's apartment. This was probably in 1949.
I walked the streets in the East 50's, looking for empty windows. I couldn't afford an apartment. I saw a place on 52nd Street between Madison and Park. There was a young woman at the door, and I said: ''I see empty windows. Do you have a room to rent?'' She said, ''What for?'' And I said, ''Well, I'm going to make hats.'' She told me to tell the men who owned the house that I would clean for them in exchange for the room on the top floor.