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Posted 27 June 2016 - 12:25 AM
"Bill Cunningham, who has died aged 87, was a photographer of street fashion for the New York Times; held in great affection in Manhattan for his good humour, simplicity of life and unerring aesthetic judgment, for 40 years he pedalled around mid-town Manhattan on his bicycle taking photographs of people and what they were wearing.
“The best fashion show is definitely on the street,” he said. “Always has been. Always will be.” He had a keen eye for a new trend, on the streets, in markets, at fashionable openings and shows. His photographs appeared in Women’s Wear Daily (but he left when sneering captions were added to his pictures of women out and about), Details and Vogue as well as in the New York Times. He used a battered Nikon and sent his film for developing to a one-hour photo shop in 43rd Street.
Cunningham had no interest in celebrities, except as subjects to focus his lens on, or in money, possessions or romantic relationships. The columnist Maureen Dowd called him “the ascetic anthropologist of New York’s streets”.
For many years (until he was evicted) he rented an artist’s studio on an upper floor of the Carnegie Hall Tower; he slept on a bed of foam on a wooden board supported by milk crates in a room containing a metal filing cabinet stuffed with negatives. There was no kitchen and the bathroom was down the hall. He never owned a television. But he was happy and he loved his job.
Though he brushed shoulders with the haut monde, he would not allow himself to be corrupted, accepting only a glass of water at the society galas he covered: “You see, if you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing.”
Every Sunday he went to Mass, just as he had in childhood, when, he remembered, all he did “was look at women’s hats”.
Cunningham’s own uniform was unchanging – a blue cotton French worker’s jacket with big pockets, khaki trousers and a smart shirt. For when it rained he had a fold-up plastic poncho, its holes patched up with gaffer tape.
“The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with,” he observed. “The point is that fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.”
The second of four children, William John Cunningham was born into a Boston Irish Catholic family on March 13 1929.
As a teenager he got a job as a stockboy at the Manhattan department store Bonwitt Teller. There, as he later related, an executive noticed him watching people at lunchtime. “Oh, yeah,” he told her, “that’s my hobby.” She replied: “If you think what they’re wearing is wrong, why don’t you redo them in your mind’s eye.”
After a term at Harvard (“Harvard wasn’t for me at all”) he returned to Bonwit’s, this time in the advertising department. By the early 1950s he was designing and making exotic hats in his spare time, selling them under the discreet brand name William J, because his family would have been embarrassed by the association: “They were very shy people.”
After service in the US Army during the Korean War he set up his milliner’s business in a shop in central Manhattan, and later at Southampton on Long Island. By the early 1960s he had begun writing about fashion for Women’s Wear Daily. But his epiphany came in the late 1960s when an acquaintance sold him an Olympus Pen D camera and advised: “Use it like a notebook.”"
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