According to the late great Oscar de la Renta Bill Cunningham, whose “On the Street” column appears in the Style section of the New York Times every Sunday, has served as the chief archivist of the visual history of New York City for the past half-century.
As a fashion photographer; but, more importantly, as a chronicler of how people use fashion every day to express emotion, convey ideas, and evoke a response from the world at large, he is in a class all his own.
Cunningham, who is known to prefer to shoot film rather than digital, almost single-handedly created the category of street-style photography. His eye, and his ability to edit and tell a story visually about the current moment in fashion are without parallel.
After stints in advertising and as a milliner (he produced hats under the label William J) he began an illustrious career as a fashion journalist.
His work appeared in The Chicago Tribune and Women’s Wear Daily, where he introduced readers in the United States to designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa. His friend, the American photographer David Montgomery, gifted Cunningham his first camera—an Olympus half-frame as he remembers it—and suggested he use it as he would a pen and take notes with it. The rest, as they say, is history.
He first noticed our own Lily Gatins outside the Philip Lim show in NYC in 2013. After admiring her Lucia Cuba ensemble and custom-made Debra Rapaport hat for about ten minutes he approached her and inquired as to why he had never seen her before.
She appeared in his column a few times, and since then the two regularly run into each other on the streets of NYC and Paris; Gatins always dressed to the nines and Cunningham with his camera, kindness, and generosity always in tow.
In the fall of 2008, Bill Cunningham was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres on behalf of the French Ministry of Culture.
In a touching speech he spoke about his love of photographing people and clothes, and his disinterest in spectacle and the trappings of celebrity culture. He finished by reminding us, with a catch in his throat,“It is true today as it ever was, he who seeks beauty will find it.”
On the Street, The New York Time