Legendary Street Style Photographer Bill Cunningham Passes Away

Bill Cunningham, the legendary photographer largely credited with popularizing street style, passed away on Saturday, the New York Times — the publication where he worked since the 1970s — confirmed. He was 87.
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Marc Jacobs.
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Bill Cunningham is the first name you learn about when you first cross from the Audrey-Hepburn-poster-on-a-wall to the realm of fashion. When you start tumbling down the rabbit hole of fashion photography, designers who belong in art museums, and the weirdo visionaries and renegades who have become legends in the modern canon of fashion (Isabella Blow, Lee McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Diana Vreeland, Lynn Yaeger, Anna Piaggi…and so on), you always somehow circle back to Bill. On the sidelines at every wild party, every revolutionary fashion show, and each burgeoning subculture that defined the industry for the past 40 years, Cunningham was there, clad in his signature blue workman jacket, a camera hung around his neck.

Though his image became famous after the 2010 documentary made about him, Cunningham was reported to have loathed the attention and preferred to stay in the background, rather than join in on the other side. His self-imposed outsider perspective gave him a unique point of view when it came to an industry that's very much about subjectivity.

Cunningham documented fashion, but unlike many photographers who only shoot during Fashion Week and only focus on women of certain pedigrees, body types, or budgets, he paid equal attention to everything on everybody. Cunningham photographed NYU students and working women with as much interest and attention as he paid to the oligarchs and socialites during Fashion Week. His lens couldn't care less about who you were wearing and how much you paid for it: No one could cut through the bullshit like Bill. Anna Wintour once joked that women who love fashion don't get dressed for men — or even other women — fashion people get dressed so they can get noticed by Bill Cunningham.

He was a staple at Fashion Weeks across the globe. Spotting Cunningham out in his element, snapping away the minute details of extravagant getups, was a rite of passage, both to industry veterans and those just getting their start in fashion. It was a thrill to catch his bright-blue jacket weaving in and out of the crowd outside a fashion show or to have him dash past on his bicycle (his preferred mode of transportation to and from shows). Women who have been photographed by Bill Cunningham cherish those stories as relics more valuable than any shoe, handbag, or coat.

We can credit Cunningham as the grandfather for modern street style — a fashion format that's as normal to us these days as show critiques and product reviews — but he was revolutionary, even now. In a time when questions about origin, appropriation, and representation are crucial to how we understand social justice issues, Cunningham was one of our industry's biggest advocates for letting us — the people on the street — determine the themes and trends that define our generation.

Here are a few words, thoughts, and memories from those in the industry who loved him:

Hail to an original pioneer. Our respect goes out to you, Mr. #BillCunningham

A photo posted by Images Matter. (@bfa) on

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It's painful to imagine this upcoming New York Fashion Week without Bill. During a time of so much upheaval, both within the fashion industry and the world at large, it's a sad thing that one of our best cultural anthropologists is going to be missing from the conversation. RIP, Bill. The streets won’t be the same without you.
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