Bill Cunningham, street snapper

Bill Cunningham/The New York Times

The man who turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York has died aged 87, writes Jacob Bernstein in the The New York Times.

Mr Cunningham chronicled an era's ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore — stylishly, flamboyantly, or just plain sensibly — died on June 25 in Manhattan after earlier having been hospitalised following a stroke.

One of a large Catholic family, he was buried from a private funeral in New York's Church of St Thomas More. During the Mass, the priest made the point that when Bill Cunninghaml first picked up a camera 50 years ago, his life changed. The priest said for Bill, photography was not a job or career, it was a vocation, almost like he had been called by God to it.

Mr Cunningham was such a singular presence in the city that, in 2009, he was designated a living landmark. And he was an easy one to spot, riding his bicycle through Midtown, where he did most of his field work: His bony-thin frame draped in his utilitarian blue French worker's jacket, khaki pants, and black sneakers (he himself was no one's idea of a fashion plate), with his 35-millimeter camera slung around his neck, ever at the ready for the next fashion statement to come around the corner.

Nothing escaped his notice: Not the bum bags, not the Birkin bags, not the gingham shirts, not the fluorescent biker shorts.

In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr Cunningham snapped away at changing dress habits to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.

At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top-wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.

In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.

In 2008, Mr Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed the Legion of Honour on him. In New York, he was celebrated at the luxury goods department store Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him was installed in the window.

It was the New York Landmarks Conservancy that made him a living landmark in 2009, the same year The New Yorker magazine, in a profile, described his On the Street and Evening Hours columns as the city's unofficial yearbook: "An exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked."

In 2010, a documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.

Yet Mr Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him.

He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.

He didn't go to the movies. He didn't own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had, until very recently, for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), he said: "Money's the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive."

Although he sometimes photographed upward of 20 gala events a week, he never sat down for dinner at any of them and would wave away people who walked up to him to inquire whether he would at least like a glass of water.

Instead, he stood off to the side photographing women like Annette de la Renta and Mercedes Bass in their beaded gowns and tweed suits. As Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue magazine put it in the documentary about Mr Cunningham, "I've said many times, 'We all get dressed for Bill'."

His survivors include several nieces and nephews.

William John Cunningham Jr was born on March 13, 1929, in Boston, the second of four children in an Irish Catholic family.

READ MORE

Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87 (The New York Times)

Bill Cunningham's private Catholic funeral (The Guardian)

PHOTO 

First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films/New York Times

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