Bill Cunningham, the modern era’s original street style photographer, died Saturday in New York. His passing marked the end of an extraordinary career, during which Cunningham, 87, spent almost 40 years chronicling the world’s ever-changing fashion trends and shifting social mores for the New York Times.
His death also means that fashion reporting — and the wider world of journalism — has been deflated, diluted, weakened. That is the more profound sadness.
In his wake, there are countless new-generation photographers who prowl the sidewalks looking to capture some rare bird flitting along Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where Cunningham often waited with his camera in hand. Street style lives on Instagram. It has been enshrined in books, exhibitions, films. And so too was Cunningham’s work. But Cunningham was admired and beloved within the fashion world and beyond not merely because of his skill at transforming style photography into cultural anthropology, but because of the integrity, precision and journalistic fervor with which he did it.
In an industry in which it is sometimes hard to tell what is truth and what is a paid promotion, Cunningham was obsessive in his philosophy of refusal. For decades he worked independently and only grudgingly joined the Times staff — mostly for the health insurance. At a time when fashion influencers regularly receive free airfare, free clothes, free hotels, Cunningham was a journalistic ascetic. He valued his freedom more than anything else….