I’m no fashion maven. But, recently, when I bought a hat with a green flower and ribbon around its brim to add color to my summer, I couldn’t help but think of the iconic fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. For decades, like so many of his fans, I’ve devoured Cunningham’s “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns in the New York Times Style section. Now, his aficionados are in mourning. Cunningham died on June 25 at age 87 after suffering a stroke.
There are renowned fashion photographers, designers and writers. But there hasn’t been anyone like Cunningham, who was such a unique part of New York City that in 2009 the New York Conservancy designated him a living landmark.
Throughout his life, Cunningham loved clothes. As a boy, “I could never concentrate on Sunday church services,” he wrote in the Times, “because I’d be concentrating on women’s hats.”
Yet, Cunningham “was like a monk – totally devoted to his work,” graphic designer Ted Dawson told me over the phone, “as an artist, he wanted to be a clean slate.”
Cunningham, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Boston, sped around New York – from downtown to mid-Manhattan to Harlem on a bicycle. For decades (before he and the other renters were evicted), Cunningham lived in a one-room apartment above Carnegie Hall. He habitually wore a blue French workingman’s jacket.
For more than 40 years, Cunningham used his camera to document not only the fashion but the life of New York. “I let the street speak to me,” Cunningham said in the documentary “Bill Cunningham: New York,” directed by Richard Press, “…you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is.”
Though fashion is sometimes seen as frivolous in the face of enormous social problems, Cunningham said, this wasn’t true for him. “Fashion…it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” he added, “I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
Cunningham showed that photojournalism could be quietly used to help LGBT and other marginalized people. Decades before the New York Times began using the word “gay” in 1987, Cunningham was an “incognito activist,” wrote Dan Shaw, who worked with him more than 20 years ago at the Times, in New York Magazine.
“Without being partisan or political, he raised awareness of the vital role of gays in New York culture,” Shaw added.
At a time when the Times provided scant coverage of AIDS, its queer reporters had to be closeted and homophobia was widespread in the country, Cunningham used his columns to photograph gay Pride parades, men wearing skirts and AIDS fundraisers.
Cunningham seems to have been a private man. He never had a romantic relationship he said in the documentary. “Do you want to know if I’m gay? Isn’t that a riot? There was no time. I was working night and day.”
He was religious, without making a big deal about it. “Maybe it’s part of your upbringing. You do whatever you do,” Cunningham, who went to Mass every Sunday, told Press.
Cunningham took some photographs for his “Evening Hours” column at several fundraisers for Bailey House, a group that helps homeless people in New York City. Cunningham’s coverage was immensely helpful to the organization, Dawson, a member of the group’s board of directors told me.
Later, Dawson said, he went to a celebration of the Cunningham documentary at the Bergdorf-Goodman department store in Manhattan. “After I thanked him on behalf of the people helped by Bailey House, Bill started to cry,” he added, “he was so moved that people from such a place would want to thank him!”
In 2008, when he accepted the Legion of Honor from the French government, Cunningham said, “He who seeks beauty shall find it.”
Thank you, Bill, for the beauty you sought and found for us. R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.