Thursday, June 30, 2016

RIP Bill Cunningham

He's Just Our Bill

Bill Cunningham, the legendary photographer with a 40-year career at The New York Times, died last week. He was 87 years old.

He was beloved in the style world for his On the Street spread in each Sunday's Times, as well as the Evening Hours coverage of society and charity galas.

On Sunday, October 27, 2002, The Times published a special section called "On the Street." The lead article, "The Age of Street Fashion," was written by Guy Trebay, my favorite style writer who can turn an original phrase like no other. "Has there ever been a designer's catwalk that produced better fashion than a city sidewalk?" he wrote.

I saved that section for 14 years and pulled it out of my "Fashion Articles" box because I remembered that there was a treasure trove of material in it on Bill Cunningham. "Bill on Bill" was in his own words. Here are some of the words and pictures from that section.

Bill Cunningham apparently was a sweet, funny guy. He rode around New York City, even in his dotage, (although he really did not have a dotage) on a bike, snapping pictures of the "stunners" that he passed. Or he would station himself at the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street to capture the ladies and gents "going to business," as he put it. He could be spotted in his blue workman's jacket which he purchased in the hardware section in the basement of the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville department store in Paris.
Bill Cunningham on the Sheep Meadow in Central Park,
Easter Sunday, 1967 with his first camera.

Bill wrote:
"I started photographing people on the street during World War II. I used a little box Brownie. Nothing too expensive. The problem is I'm not a good photographer. To be perfectly honest, I'm too shy. Not aggressive enough. Well, I'm not aggressive at all. I just loved to see wonderfully dressed women, and I still do. That's all there is to it."

In the 1950s, Bill designed hats under the label William J. because his family would have been embarrassed if he had used his real name. His shop was at 44 West 54th Street in a brownstone.

 Two of Bill's hats.
 An overflow crowd in Bill's Salon for a 
1956 showing of his hats.

Joe Eula, Illustrator, said:
"In the 1950s, I lived across the street from him when he was William J. I remember he had this hat in the window with fringe hanging from the brim to the ground. It was a bathing suit hat, and you were supposed to change your clothes behind the fringe. I called up Sally Kirkland, who was the fashion editor at Life, and I said, "You've got to see this!" She put it in Life. Bill was an absolute innovator right from the get-go. His hats were the grand opera of all time."
Bill's first collection of street photography in The Times on December 30 1978.
Greta Garbo is top, second from right.
Bill said:
"Then I got to know Arthur Gelb (former Managing Editor of The Times), and one day I told him about this woman I had been photographing on the street. She wore a nutria coat, and I thought: "Look at the cut of that shoulder. It's so beautiful." And it was a plain coat, too. You'd look at it and think: "Oh, are you crazy? It's nothing."  Anyway, I was taking her picture, and I saw people turn around, looking at her. She crossed the street, and I thought. Is that? Sure enough, it was Greta Garbo. All I had noticed was the coat, and the shoulder." 
 Bill in his hat salon in 1957.
He was quite a handsome fellow.
My favorite anecdote about Bill, is that
when he covered the fashion shows in Paris,
he always stayed at a modest hotel and made the
room reservation by sending them a note on a postcard.
John Fairchild said, 
"You know, he's like a pixie on a bicycle. You're at some dreary event. Suddenly, there's a flash, a wonderful word, and just lifts you up."

In 2012, Bill photographed my friends, 
The Idiosyncratic Fashionistas, in
my felt helmets, which he
really liked, according to Jean and Valerie.

Bill, we will miss you. Sundays will never be the
same without opening the Style Section to
your "On the Street."

Au revoir, Bill.


  1. It is obvious that he was a fan of your art. What a wonderful guy. All these years that I have been living in ~yawn~ California, far away from my beloved New York, I still get the New York Sunday Times and the first thing I do is open the Style Section to see what Bill has seen on the streets. He really made me feel connected. What a lovely tribute, Carol.

  2. Thanks, Connie. It really does feel like a member of the family is gone.

  3. Oh Carol!! Thank you for this lovely post. I didn't know much about his past and was happy to learn more. I hope you have a real print of the photo of the helmet hats. That would be a treasure. xoxo

  4. Hi Jean. Glad you enjoyed the post. I have the clipping from the newspaper.

  5. This is the most interesting account I read until now. Just that I would say Adieu, rather than Au revoir.

  6. Yes, Angelica, I can see why Adieu would be better as it means I commend you to God. And Bill was a religious man.

  7. Yes, Angelica, I can see why Adieu would be better as it means I commend you to God. And Bill was a religious man.

  8. really lovely reminiscence.