As confirmed by The New York Times, iconic photographer Bill Cunningham—who The Times says “turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology”—has died. Cunningham had suffered a stroke recently and was being hospitalized. He was 87.
Cunningham was born in Boston in 1929, and he attended Harvard University for a short time before dropping out and moving to New York. He jumped around to various different jobs and was eventually drafted into the Korean war. When he returned to the United States, he began covering fashion for publications like Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune.
In the ‘70s, Cunningham began regularly contributing to The New York Times, revolutionizing photography for the paper at the time by snapping pictures of famous people without their permission. As the Times obit explains, he was offered several staff positions over the years, but he consistently turned them down because, as he’d say, “once people own you, they can tell you what to do.” However, Cunningham finally caved in the ‘90s when he got hit by a truck while on one of his regular bicycle rides through the city, dismissing the decision as “a matter of health insurance.”
Cunningham didn’t just take photos of famous people, though. He was just as well-known for riding around the city on his bike and taking pictures of regular people, preferring the way that non-celebrities would wear real clothes that they had picked out instead of free clothes that were given to them. Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor, said that, “to see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together.”
In 2011, filmmaker Richard Press directed a documentary about Cunningham simply titled Bill Cunningham New York that took a closer look at his day-to-day life. By all accounts, though, Cunningham hated being the subject of someone else’s documenting and would do everything he could to delay shooting for the movie. According to The Times, he purposefully never saw the completed film, but he attended the premiere simply so he could photograph the people who made it.
In 2009, as a testament to the impact that he had on New York City’s culture, Cunningham was declared “a living landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.