Cunningham had been hospitalized after a stroke earlier this week.
From bell bottoms to fanny packs and beyond, Cunningham immortalized not only the fashions of the moment, but the cultural shifts as they changed. As the Times puts it, the photographer became “an unlikely anthropologist” in his 40 years at the paper, as his street photos reflected a change from formality into more self-expressive trends.
Though he preferred not to photograph celebrities, but rather passing residents on the streets of Manhattan, Cunningham became something of a star himself in the fashion world. The French government honored him with the Legion d’Honneur in Paris in 2008, and he was congratulated at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, where a life-size mannequin of him was installed.
He was also the subject of the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art.
Cunningham was born in Boston in 1929, the second of four children. His gravitation to fashion was apparent early on — he made hats as a child, and worked part-time as a teenager at department star Bonwit Teller. He received a scholarship to Harvard, but dropped out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” Cunningham said of the experience. “I was hopeless — but I was a visual person.”
He then moved in with an uncle, Tom Harringston, in New York, who was in the advertising industry. Cunningham said his family hoped his uncle would rub off on him and that he would also enter the business, but his fascination with fashion held firm, and he later moved out after his uncle forced him to choose between their living situation and his hat-making.
He freelanced a column for Women’s Wear Daily for extra money, but quit in the early ’60s after a feud with publisher John Fairchild over who was the better designer: André Courrèges or Yves Saint Laurent. In 1967, he turned to photography, taking assignments for the Daily News and Chicago Tribune that summer.
He became a regular contributer to the Times in the late ’70s, but refused to take a staff position until 1994, when he was hit by a truck while riding his bike. He later explained he took the staff position for health insurance, and stayed at the publication for years after.
“His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met,” said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Times’ publisher and chairman, in a statement. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”
“He was a hugely ethical journalist,” said Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor. “And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”
“Bill was an extraordinary man, his commitment and passion unparalleled, his gentleness and humility inspirational,” added Michele McNally, The Times’ director of photography. “Even though his talents were very well known, he preferred to be anonymous, something unachievable for such a superstar. I will miss him everyday.”