This past Saturday, fashion legend Bill Cunningham passed away at the age of 87. If you haven’t heard of Cunningham before, that’s probably the way he would have liked it. Despite his prolific list of accomplishments”he was a contributor to the New York Times for 40 years, France named him an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2008 (the country’s highest arts and culture award), and he casually invented street style photography”he remained remarkably humble and sought anonymity. In an obituary published by the Times, Mr. Cunningham is described as having told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him. And he wasn’t kidding. It was his dedication to anonymity that ultimately made him famous.
He had a simple uniform. As he roamed New York photographing the styles that caught his eye, Cunningham wore the same blue smock jacket, Khaki pants and appeared at all times on his bike, which he rode with a religious fervor. He earnestly desired to blend in in order to capture authentic photographs.
Cunningham took street photos out of appreciation for striking cuts, fabrics and style, of clothes rather than the celebrities that wore them. In an essay he wrote for the Times in 2002 Bill Cunningham on Bill Cunningham, he describes his approach to photography: I never bothered with celebrities unless they were wearing something interesting. He said, I suppose, in a funny way, I’m a record keeper. More than a collector. I’m very aware of things not of value but of historical knowledge. Ironically, his simple uniform and disregard for fame rendered him iconic.
He recounts how some days he would stand outside Le Cirque, a restaurant on 65th street and just wait to see something beautiful. Most people wouldn’t believe that anyone would be so dumb to come every day and stand for two hours without knowing whether somebody was coming out, he said, But I like the surprise of finding someone. Most photographers couldn’t do what I do because of deadlines. You spend days, weeks, years waiting for what I call a stunner. And Mr. Cunningham took many stunners.
Oscar de La Renta recounts, 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¦ And he’s such an unbelievably discreet man. I don’t know anything about his life, except his bicycle.
If there is anything to be learned from Mr. Cunningham’s career its that inspiration and art take time, dedication, passion and trust in the process. I go out every day, He said. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.