He had the lifestyle of a monk, the instincts of a sniper and the eye of an artist. And he was a colleague and a friend of mine.

Michael Eric Ross
Jun 28, 2016 · 5 min read
The master in his domain (John Kurdewan)

It may be the height of irony that a man who never went to the movies or owned a television set could be a outsize presence on the worlds of style, fashion and popular culture. Such was the photographic professional, the ascetic creative, the joyful iconoclast the world knew as BILL CUNNINGHAM.

Cunningham, who died on Saturday at the age of 87, was a legend at The New York Times, where for 40 years he chronicled the evolution of fashion and style in the petri dish of the streets of the city that never sleeps. And much of the “streetwise” personae that fashion has taken on over the years is a direct result of Cunningham’s genial-guerrilla approach to photojournalism. It was his invention.

He had the lifestyle of a monk, the instincts of a sniper and the eye of an artist. And he was a colleague and a friend of mine.

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The New York Times can’t be an easy place to work, no more these days than it was in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Today there are any number of ravenous competitors in the news game. The Times no longer rules the roost of American journalism by acclamation. The playing field is vastly different than it was from 1985 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996, when the primacy of the Times as a news organization was pretty much unchallenged. When I was there.

The real competition then was largely internal, when interns, college graduates and younger journalists (such as yours truly) jockeyed for the attention of Times senior editors. As an editor on the Culture and Style desks, I watched this internal struggle for power play itself out month after month as any number of driven, autocratic editors made themselves known.

Bill wasn’t having any. The quick, irrepressible native Bostonian, lean as a greyhound, managed to perform the enviable feat of workplace levitation, staying above the endless company politics. By the mid-80’s, he’d carved himself out a singular niche as a Times photographer in style-conscious New York — and he’d done it without making himself insane navigating the rugby scrum of the office. How? The office can’t make you crazy if you don’t spend much time there.

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Not that office, anyway. For Bill Cunningham, New York City was the office. Wearing his own generally unremarkable wardrobe — one of his signature berets, khakis or chinos, and a crew-neck sweater pulled over a dress shirt — Cunningham delighted in the freedom of his craft, working the streets of New York with all the glee of a kid left alone in a candy store that closed for the night.

Like the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who reveled in images that reflected his capture of “the decisive moment” in a private life or a public event, Cunningham took pictures that made those streets his canvas.

Watching him work — the broad peacock expanse of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan seemed to be one of his more reliable runways — was to observe a professional in his domain, doing his best work with the zeal and passion of a newcomer.

Whether he took his cues from the brain trust on West 43d Street or not, Cunningham looked for themes amid the tireless variations of style that made and make New York what it was and is. One week in his Sunday “On the Street” column, he’d focus on the proliferation of leggings; another week it was fanny packs; still another week Bill went stalking the vast population of animal prints. He looked for patterns (literally but mostly figuratively); he sought out the spirited repetitions and consistencies that pointed to emerging fashion trends, not just one-off personal expressions.

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In doing that, Cunningham became part of the cycle of creativity: designers looked at his photos in The Times; they came up with variations on what the photographs showed, which led to Cunningham photographing those variations whenever they hit the street in numbers big enough to matter … which led to other designers creating something new from those variations. All in all, a smooth, seamless parasitism that continued for decades.

He was refreshingly ecumenical in the source of his revelations. He took pictures of the swells and grandees and captains of industry at the galas and A-list parties. But he was just as happy, and maybe happier, on the Lower East Side or up in Harlem investigating what others missed or ignored, a spy in the hothouse of fashion.

In spite of his generally low-key nature, Bill’s style and his developing influence on fashion journalism, and the fashion industry itself, was such that for years his name was recorded in Times photo captions with CAPITAL LETTERS — a variation on Times house style, and a sign of respect for his influence in a city where it’s hard to have impact on anything for very long.

“There would be no street style without Bill Cunningham,” tweeted the designer Michael Kors on Sunday. And Michael Kors would know.

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And for all of it, Bill Cunningham was a profoundly decent human being, one whose easygoing manner made life bearable for people he didn’t have to care about, including a young Times editor new to the city, the newspaper of record, and their mutual intensities.

“Michaellllll! How’s it going?” he’d say to me on one of his brief stops at the Times building, always ready with a smile and words of encouragement. I knew better than to ask where he was going; a good journalist never asks another for his sources, and a great journalist never reveals them anyway.

But it was mostly because — I suspected — half the time, he didn’t know himself where he was going when he left the building. Bill kept his counsel; he seemed to relish the unpredictability of where the day would take him, either on foot or on his bicycle, a preferred mode of transport. Uptown, downtown, he didn’t care. The city was his subject. Surprise was his compensation.

“I never go out with a preconceived idea,” Cunningham wrote in a Times essay in June 2002. “I let the street speak to me.”

And aren’t we lucky: The versatility of culture, the idea of fashion, The Times we read and the times we live in are all better, more vibrant, more pertinent, more a celebration of life because BILL CUNNINGHAM spoke to us.

The Omnibus

Whatever, et al.

Michael Eric Ross

Written by

Editor | Author | Producer | Blogger | Content creative | short-sharp-shock.blogspot.com

The Omnibus

Whatever, et al.

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