Bill Cunningham’s uniform was utilitarian: a blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers.
Bill Cunningham, the street-style photographer whose photo essays for The New York Times memorialized trends ranging from fanny packs to Birkin bags, gingham shirts and fluorescent biker shorts, died Saturday in New York. He was 87.
He had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke.
In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed 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 a celebrity himself.
In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed him with the Légion d’Honneur. Back in New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him was installed in the window.
In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and profiled in The New Yorker, which described his columns On the Street and Evening Hours as the city’s unofficial yearbook, “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
In 2010, a documentary film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.
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 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 less than $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 asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
His uniform was utterly utilitarian: a blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers. Although he sometimes photographed upward of 20 gala events a week, he never sat down at any of them for dinner 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 him, “I’ve said many times, we all get dressed for Bill.”
“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’ publisher and chairman. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
Dean Baquet, The Times’ 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.”
Mr. Cunningham particularly loved eccentrics, whom he collected like precious seashells.
One was Shail Upadhya, whose work as a Nepalese diplomat is perhaps less memorable than his penchant for polka dots, Pucci prints and other assorted peculiarities, like a self-designed floral-print coat made from his retired sofa.
Mr. Cunningham’s most frequent observation spot during the day was Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where he became as much a part of the scenery as Tiffany & Co. His camera clicked constantly as he spotted fashions and moved with gazellelike speed to record his subjects at just the right angle.
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“Everyone knew to leave him alone when he saw a sneaker he liked or a dress that caught his eye,” said Harold Koda, the former curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.
“Because if you were in the way of someone he wanted to photograph,” said Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper Magazine and a friend, “he would climb over you to get it. He was like a war photographer that way, except that what he was photographing were clothes.”
“When I’m photographing,” Mr. Cunningham once said, “I look for the personal style with which something is worn — sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera — to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”
William John Cunningham Jr. was born March 13, 1929, in Boston, the second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family.
In junior high, he used bits of material he got from a dime store to put together hats, one of which he gave to his mother to wear to the New York World’s Fair in 1939. “She never wore it,” he once said. “My family all thought I was a little nuts.”
As a teenager, he got a part-time job at the department store Bonwit Teller, then received a scholarship to Harvard only to drop out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I was hopeless — but I was a visual person.”
With nothing to do in Boston and his parents pressuring him to find some direction, he moved to New York, where he took a room with an uncle, Tom Harrington, who had an ownership stake in an advertising agency.
“My family thought they could indoctrinate me in that business, that living with my uncle, it would brush off,” Mr. Cunningham said. “But it didn’t work. I had always been interested in fashion.”
So when Harrington issued his nephew an ultimatum — “quit making hats or get out of my apartment” — Mr. Cunningham chose the latter.
To make extra money, he began freelancing a column in Women’s Wear Daily, then quit in the early 1960s after getting into a feud with its publisher, John Fairchild, over who was a better designer: André Courrèges or Yves Saint Laurent.
Around 1967, he got his first camera and used it to take pictures of the “Summer of Love,” when he realized the action was out on the street. He started taking assignments for The Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, and he became a regular contributor to The Times in the late 1970s, though over the next two decades, he declined repeated efforts by his editors to take a staff position.
“Once people own you,” he would say, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”
That changed in 1994 after Mr. Cunningham was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. Explaining why he had finally accepted The Times’ offer, he said, “It was a matter of health insurance.”