Always sporting his signature blue jacket, Mr. Cunningham did not dress to stand out in the same way his subjects did. And before the release of Bill Cunningham New York in 2010, few people outside of fashion insiders would recognize the photographer as anyone other than an eccentric old New Yorker. But for those in the world of fashion, Cunningham was an icon and the definitive voice on trends. According to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (and one of the photographer’s longest standing subjects), “we all get dressed for Bill.”
In “On The Street,” Cunningham documented the outfits he saw worn by stylish New Yorkers, often capturing them before they knew they were being photographed. His shots were candid and genuine, and they were inclusive. These photographs were not taken at exclusive high society events (photographs of which often appeared in his other column, “Evening Hours”), but in the definitively public setting of the streets of New York. His subjects were often eccentric, or at the very least, their outfits were. And while many of the trendsetters that Cunningham photographed were undeniably members of the fashion elite, like Wintour was, others were previously unrepresented members of various subcultures.
In a 2012 article for The Cut, Dan Shaw examines the role Cunningham played in creating visibility for gay men in New York in the 1980s. The photographer gave the gay community historic representation in The New York Times by covering the trend-setting fashions worn at major events for the community, including parades, galas, and fundraisers for the fight against AIDS.
With his eye for emerging trends, fashion editors often sought the predictions Cunningham made in his observations of streetwear. His weekly columns were always designed around a central theme, from popular colors or patterns to a particular accessory or a recurring shape. Recently, Cunningham had begun recording video narrations to accompany his weekly column. A slideshow of images is accompanied by the photographer’s familiar voice talking about the trends he’s been observing in the streets. In “All Aswirl,” he discusses the many different ways New Yorkers have found to wear the classic pleated skirt.
Bill Cunningham’s presence is a permanent fixture on the New York fashion scene that will continue long after his passing. His influence and legacy will be carried by the many editors, designers, fellow photographers, and socialites of all ages who knew the icon and his work. And for everyone else, they’ll know his name when they stand at the corner of 57th St. and 5th Ave and read the street sign that now dubs it “Bill Cunningham Corner.”
To see more of Bill Cunningham's street photography, visit The New York Times Archives.
Words by Kate Palisay