Bill Cunningham, Photo by First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films.
Bill Cunningham, who turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore — stylishly, flamboyantly or just plain sensibly — died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by The Times. He had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke.
Mr. Cunningham was such a singular presence in the city that, in 2009, he was designated a living landmark. And he was an easy one to spot, riding his bicycle through Midtown, where he did most of his field work: his bony-thin frame draped in his utilitarian blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers (he himself was no one’s idea of a fashion plate), with his 35-millimeter camera slung around his neck, ever at the ready for the next fashion statement to come around the corner.
Nothing escaped his notice: not the fanny packs, not the Birkin bags, not the gingham shirts, not the fluorescent biker shorts.
In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham snapped away at changing dress habits to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.
At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top-wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.
In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.
In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed the Legion of Honor on him. In New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him was installed in the window.
It was the New York Landmarks Conservancy that made him a living landmark in 2009, the same year The New Yorker, in a profile, described his On the Street and Evening Hours columns as the city’s unofficial yearbook: “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
In 2010, a documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews. (Editor's Note: Scroll down to the bottom of this article to watch the Bill Cunningham New York documentary in its entirety!)
Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him.
He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.
He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had, until very recently, for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), he said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
Although he sometimes photographed upward of 20 gala events a week, he never sat down for dinner at any of them and would wave away people who walked up to him to inquire whether he would at least like a glass of water.
Instead, he stood off to the side photographing women like Annette de la Renta and Mercedes Bass in their beaded gowns and tweed suits. As Anna Wintour put it in the documentary about Mr. Cunningham, “I’ve said many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’”
Mr. Cunningham’s position as a perennial outsider among a set of consummate insiders was part of what made him uniquely well suited to The Times.
“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 Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., The Times’s publisher and chairman. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, said: “He was a hugely ethical journalist. And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”
Michele McNally, The Times’s director of photography, said: “Bill was an extraordinary man, his commitment and passion unparalleled, his gentleness and humility inspirational. Even though his talents were very well known, he preferred to be anonymous, something unachievable for such a superstar. I will miss him every day.”
Mr. Cunningham in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Easter 1967, with his first camera, a half-frame that cost $35.
In 1969, Mr. Cunningham attended a gallery opening of fashion drawings by Charles James at the Electric Circus on St. Marks Place. In the late 1960s, he started taking assignments for The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.
Mr. Cunningham with Lynn Yaeger, a fashion journalist, in 2012.