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  • Writer's pictureCharles Cherney

126: On the street with Bill Cunningham

William John Cunningham Jr. (1929 – 2016) first became known as a designer of women's hats before moving on to writing about fashion for Women's Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune. He is now remembered – and celebrated – as an American fashion photographer for the New York Times, primarily known for his street photography.

As Wikipedia notes, Cunningham's most notable columns in the Times, On the Street and Evening Hours, ran in the paper from February 26, 1989 until shortly before his death in 2016. For his society fashion column Evening Hours, he attended high society events. For On the Street, Cunningham photographed people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan, often at the corner Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

I recently read Bill Cunningham's posthumously published memoir Fashion Climbing (2018) and watched two films about him – Bill Cunningham New York (2010) and The Times of Bill Cunningham (2018). Can't say enough good things about all three. Take them all in – all mean spending time with Bill.

I love Bill Cunningham. Love him to bits.

I love that Bill grew up in Boston – and dropped out of Harvard. I attended Harvard myself, and I have lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for many years now. It's nice to know Bill's life began around here. You will hear Bill's Boston accent when he talks.

I love Bill's irrepressible good cheer. And his smile. Very few men smile very often. Bill always seemed to have a smile on his face.

I love Bill's complete and utter dedication to his life's work. Bill never married. He never lived in a proper apartment, living most of his life in a studio without its own bathroom and kitchen above Carnegie Hall. "I'm almost ashamed to say I've never been lonely in my life," writes Bill in his memoir. It's not that he didn't have friends – he had many throughout his life. It's more that Bill's curiosity – for fashion and for the world around him – completely and utterly sustained him. As Hilton Als notes in the preface to Bill's memoir, "His enthusiasm defined him from the first." One thing Bill did not take too seriously was his ego. Or his bank account.

I love that Bill was NOT in love with money or fame. His personal philosophy was: "You see, if you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid." He declined all gifts from those he photographed, even offers of food and drink at gala parties. What mattered to Bill was seeing and documenting style. Amazing.

I love Bill's own basic yet distinctive personal style. He cultivated his own fashion signature, dressing in a uniform of black sneakers and a blue French workman's jacket, his only accessory a camera. He traveled Manhattan by bicycle, repeatedly replacing those that were stolen or damaged in accidents.

I love Bill's heart. Bill Cunningham wears his heart on his sleeve. Listen to Bill in the clip below and feast on his photos as he talks. Aptly, this video is called "Joy blooms." It captures the essence of Bill Cunningham. His warm spirit. His excellent eye. His joy for life. It's wonderful. Bill's wonderful. His was a wonderful life.


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