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:
Some legends walk by you and you hardly notice them because that's exactly what they want. Bill Cunningham was like this, and all his life he was able to keep that fire and the perfect distance from his subject, distance that allowed him to do the work that he did. He was always going, going, going, rain, snow, heat, always smiling. He is a role model for many photographers, and definitely for me, though I always knew I could never touch that level of dedication - and of selflessness. So at the shows, I used to let him go go go and just tried to not get in his way, that was the best way to show him all the good things I thought about him... Because as you can imagine, he didn't care for a selfie. Goodbye Bill, you will be missed. Photo by @thesartorialist who loved taking photos of Bill... #BillCunningham
#RIP #billcunnigham. A true and pure talent. I was lucky to sit next to him but mostly behind him at shows over the years. Once at a show in Paris the photographers went crazy for an "it" celebrity . He turned to me with his camera firm in his lap and said " I'm interested in the clothes not celebrities." All the photographers went crazy shooting her but not Bill.
rest in peace #billcunningham, a true legend 😔📷 incredible to build a life doing what you love, to become famous and not care, to make money and not care, to do what you love until the end . i remember bill walking through madison square park while i ate a salad and like nobody noticed??? i just sat there in a slo-mo pose w/ my fork just in case . if you haven't seen the documentary "bill cunningham new york" before, you should watch it this weekend
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.