Bill Cunningham, New York street-fashion photographer, died on Saturday at the age of 87. After having a stroke and being hospitalized, his death was confirmed by a spokesperson of the New York Times.

Cunningham’s photos depicted beyond beauty. He did not portray only people wearing stylish clothing but also the vivid aspect that was hidden within each one of his “models.” Mr. Cunningham worked for nearly 40 years for The Times, and it was exactly the quality and uniqueness of his pieces what turned him into a celebrity. Cunningham photos were different because of his preferences and the way he managed to capture essences, not images. He was an “invisible” photographer of visible personal styles. 

Bill Cunningham
New York street and fashion photographer died on Saturday at age 87. Credit:

In the words of Mr. Cunningham, the act of becoming invisible let people appreciate the natural side of others, that way there are no scripts or time to strike a pose.

“When I’m photographing, 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,” the photographer once said regarding his way of photographing New Yorkers.

New York city runs out of its street-fashion photographer

Mr. Cunningham’s work was very well known because his target models were everyday people on the streets of New York. He clicked his camera button on those wearing expensive fashion outfits but also on those having a sort of fashion instinct, those who knew how to put together what they had and what they found in their closets to look sometimes chic, others in vogue or with an old-fashion style.

Most of the time, Mr. Cunningham situated himself on the prestigious Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue to spot fashion trends during the day. He spent most of his time in this location because he believed that New York’s Fifth Avenue is almost the perfect scenario where everyday life and fashion get together. Once there, he just waited for an outfit, a hat, even a pair of shoes that caught his eye. However, it was not always rich environments where he took his photos. He sometimes searched secondhand shops where he knew that some old-fashion trend adept would appear to become the target of his eye. He found his muse in streets, parks, subway stations or bus stops.

Bill Cunningham
Bill Cunningham in action. Credit:

Nevertheless, Mr. Cunningham was aware of the constant movement of fashion. Hence, he needed a vehicle to keep up with it but to have the big picture of the city. He decided then it was a bicycle what would allow him to spot antique clothing trends within the architectural sites all across New York City to capture a perfect tableau.

Legendary fashion photographer

Born on March 13, 1929, in Boston, Mr. Cunningham grew up in the bosom of an Irish-Catholic family. Keeping in mind his continual interest in fashion, Cunningham moved to New York where he got different jobs to make a living in such an expensive city. He worked as a hat maker, seller, and writer for the Chicago Tribune.

The incomes he got from different jobs let him buy his first camera in 1962, giving this his big jump into photography industry. He started to photograph people, being his first assignments from The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune. It was in the late 1970s when he joined The New York Times.

Bill Cunningham
Cunningham’s first spread for the New York Times in 1978. Credit:

Mr. Cunningham was always leant towards eccentrics, those he met on a regular day, at any hour, but whose attitude was really attractive to him. It was not just a matter of what they wore but what they projected with a particular garment or with a very special strut. Celebrities, in turn, did not inspire him such attraction.

He considered celebrities pretty icons who were flat at the same time. Everything was prepared for them, their clothing, poses, speeches, attitudes. It was very difficult for Mr. Cunningham to find the natural magnetism he was constantly looking for.

Cunningham work was very coated by personal style. This is the reason why he preferred to search it on streets, where naturalness suddenly emerges, where there is no time to construct a style but to transmit it.

“Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times,” Cunningham wrote about it in an essay in 2002.

Source: Boston Globe