Matthew Dessem / © 2016 The Slate Group LLC
Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died Saturday at the age of 87, the New York Times reported. Cunningham, who was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2009, was known for his bicycle, his blue French work jacket and his ubiquitous presence photographing fashion around New York, from street clothes to couture.
Born in 1929, he began his career as a milliner, selling custom hats under the label “William J.” A collection of 23 examples of his work, ranging from a relatively modest cloche hat to a hat festooned with crystals dangling like anglerfish lures, sold at auction in 2012 for $20,000. After serving in the Korean War, he started writing a fashion column for Women’s Wear Daily on the side. In a typical example from 1962, under the lower-case headline “arrogant coats,” Cunningham took on offerings from Givenchy and Balenciaga, which, he wrote, “are just about to dump the wearers and go off by themselves. … these coats give me the feeling they would bite like a snake if I got too near.” He maintained his sense of humor about fashion for the rest of his life: One highlight of his “On The Street” photo column for the New York Times was 2009’s “The Water Dance,” in which Cunningham positively cackles over photographs of well-dressed New Yorkers and tourists ruining their shoes in the slush-filled gutters of Fifth Avenue.
Cunningham abandoned hat making when women abandoned hats in the 1960s. Though he didn’t begin taking photographs professionally until 1967, by the early 1970s he was working regularly for the New York Times, after stints with the Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. Despite numerous offers to join the staff of the Times, he remained freelance until he was hit by a truck in 1994 and needed health insurance. In 2010 filmmaker Richard Press made a documentary about him, Bill Cunningham New York, which chronicled his career and eccentricities. Throughout his life, Bill Cunningham retained a carefully cultivated distance from his subjects, refusing so much as a glass of water at the galas he photographed and turning down an offer to curate a retrospective of his photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He valued his independence above all, telling an interviewer, “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”