Bill Cunningham: A memorable fashion and street photographer

The documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” arrives at the M.V. Film Center on Friday, March 13. The late Cunningham built a career as a fashion photographer over 60 years, many of them at The New York Times.

A shy, unassuming man, Cunningham was born in Boston. He moved to New York in 1949 and began his professional life there as a milliner for the department store

 Bonwit Teller. He had made his first hats as a 10-year-old. Working in the department store’s advertising department, he was fired for making fancy hats for fancy balls. Cunningham started to move up in the fashion world in the 1950s after the editor of Women’s Wear Daily interviewed him.

For 50 years, he made his home in a room at Carnegie Hall.

While in the Army in France, he took two weeks off to see the fashion shows in Paris. The year was 1952, and it was the beginning of a long-time association with the designer world there. Photographer Harold Chapman in Paris became his biggest influence. Thanks to another milliner, Cunningham made hats in Rochefort, France, and became associated with Sophie Bernard and Chez Ninon, major influences.

Despite his connections to the world of high fashion and designers like Balenciaga and Jacques Fath, Cunningham bought his clothes at thrift shops for 50 cents and wore hand-me-downs from his well-to-do customers. In 1963, he dyed a suit black for Jackie Kennedy to wear at JFK’s funeral.

Cunningham was never interested in Hollywood, believing that movie stars lacked style in their personal lives. His first foray into newspapering came about from Women’s Wear Daily editor John Fairchild, who felt fashion was not a profession for men. Cunningham acquired a camera in 1967, using an Olympus half-frame. Cameras came as a revelation, and he began taking many photographs. He took to New York’s streets in 1970, saying his mission was looking for answers to solve problems and creating the element of surprise. It was a time to cover what was going on in the political world and the period of social upheaval. But he said no favorite time period appealed to him. “Fashion makes people feel good,” he said. “It lifts the spirit.”

“I love to document,” he explained, and thought of himself as a fashion historian. Fashionista Diana Vreeland fascinated Cunningham, and he photographed her many times. Staying invisible was an important element of his work, and he loved best the freedom photography gave him.

Asked if he didn’t want to work in a variety of locales, Cunningham said of New York, “I don’t ever want to leave this place. I can’t wait to go out in the morning.” His signature was the blue jacket he wore and the bicycle he rode. His connection to bikes derived from his days working as a newspaper delivery boy, and over the years he rode 25 bikes. During the height of the AIDS crisis, Cunningham photographed the gay community extensively and became an active supporter of gay causes. `

Although he was celebrated for his street photos published in the N.Y. Times, he insisted he was not talented. “The Times is very generous,” he claimed. His only problem was getting the spelling of his subjects’ names right. In 2008 he was awarded the L’Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. While he led a very frugal life, he amassed a collection of art and diamonds. His goal was to capture and celebrate beauty wherever he found it. After his death, Vogue editor Anna Wintour said of him, “We all got dressed for Bill. I wonder if there will be anyone like Bill to dress us.”

 

Information and tickets for “The Times of Bill Cunningham” and other films playing at the Film Center are available at mv film society.