Bill Cunningham: The First Street Style Photographer

bill cunningham street style photographer

Image property of First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films

As New York is in full swing of yet another fashion week, the fashion world also prepares for the other side of NYFW: the street style. Often getting more press coverage than the collections themselves, street style is a cultural phenomenon all of its own and it was a certain Mr Bill Cunningham who set the bar for the future photographers who now fill our Instagram feeds. This New York Fashion Week, in between the shows and the emerging SS18 trends, we remember the original street style photographer.

On 25 June 2016, The New York Times broke the news that Bill Cunningham had passed away after being hospitalised following a stroke, aged 87. Having worked at The Times for 40 years, the paper had lost a well-respected employee, colleague and friend, the world had lost an incredibly talented photographer, and fashion had lost a man who had changed the way we view clothes and their wearers forever.

Born in Boston in 1929, Bill Cunningham moved to New York with dreams of becoming a milliner, only to find that fashion was changing – it was the ’60s and the want and need for formality was moving over to a wave of feminism and more relaxed, experimental fashion.

In 1967 he picked up his first camera, taking pictures of people on the streets for The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune, picking up assignments for The New York Times by the late 1970s.

bill cunningham

Image property of Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Instantly recognisable for his blue utilitarian jacket, khaki or corduroy trousers, 35-millimetre camera hanging around his neck and chosen mode of transport – the bike – over time Bill Cunningham became a subject in himself, being named a living landmark in 2009 and having a documentary made about him in 2010. This was all very reluctantly though – Cunningham didn’t seek fame or simply photograph those who had it; it was the people on the street who expressed individuality through their style to whom he pointed his lens and he had no interest in it being the other way around.

In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Bill Cunningham documented the ever-changing and ever-eclectic style of Manhattan – from the formal American prepsters of the Upper East Side to the B-boys in Harlem and everyone in between – with a particular love for eccentrics, whether they were an office worker on the street or 94-year-old socialite Iris Apfel (who was relatively unknown before Cunningham took an interest).

Bill Cunningham was documenting street style through his lens long before street style became a ‘thing’. From his bicycle, he changed the landscape of fashion photography and in celebrating the individual, he’s helped people around the world express their differences through fashion. For Bill, it wasn’t about the celebrity with his or her many stylists and hours of careful preening, it was about the regular person on the street with a strong sense of personal style and character. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy will forever live on.

Words by Angharad Jones

Sarah Atkinson

Sarah Atkinson

Writer and expert