Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, once admitted that “everyone got dressed in the morning in the hope of being photographed by Bill Cunningham.”
He was, after all, the renowned New York street style photographer who famously said the words, “The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be.”
Bill could always be spotted in his distinctive uniform of a blue jacket, and over the past 50 years, he was regularly seen flying around the streets of New York on his bike (he owned 28 bikes in total, 27 of which were stolen!)
To be snapped by him was an honour, but to be featured by him in his photographic spread for the NY Times was as good as being in Vogue.
While most photographers would submit their work to a publication and move on to the next job, Bill was involved in every part of the process right down to the selection and positioning of the pictures on the page.
Such was the degree of influence his work had on the fashion industry, Bill eventually became the subject of a hit documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, which is currently available on Netflix.
A quiet and intensely private man by nature, it took the documentary-makers 8 years to convince him to partake in the project.
The documentary gave fans an extremely rare insight into his life and featured a number of high-profile fashion influencers, from Anna Wintour (“Bill has been photographing me since I was a kid. He either get’s 2 shots of your outfit or he ignores you completely which is death!”) to the ever-colouful style icon Iris Apfel, one of Bill’s favourite people to photograph.
While most photographers would have to rush to photograph the celebrities, most celebrities would rush to be photographed with Bill!
Despite being a celebrity in his own right, Bill famously shunned luxury and limelight. As the documentary revealed, he regularly turned down invitations to high-profile A-lister events.
He slept on a small camp bed in a tiny studio above Carnegie Hall that was filled with several filing cabinets storing his negatives. Bill always repaired his plastic rain anorak with tape and never cashed the cheques sent to him by the magazines that used his work.
His reasoning for refusing payment was simple:
“You see, if you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing”
When his death was sadly announced last Saturday, June 25th, many remarked that it was the end of an era and wondered aloud as to who would fill his shoes.
The best fashion show may have been on the streets, as Bill said, but there’s no denying that the best street style pictures were always seen through his lens.
RIP Bill Cunningham.
How the celebrities reacted to Bill’s passing: