PRINT March 1996


IF YOU LIVE IN MANHATTAN, you cannot have failed to see him, a narrow-shouldered and youthful-looking man of 60 riding his ancient bicycle, or perched at street corners, or at the 26th Street flea market, or hovering at a society party in the Temple of Dendur, or kneeling at the runway of the fashion shows that he has covered for almost thirty years. You cannot have failed to see him darting along 42nd Street, halting passersby whose items of clothing seem to him to reveal something about fashion as it’s being formulated moment by moment, a girl with some crazy kind of hair extensions, one of the Chanel addicts of 57th Street, a member of the ever-growing Prada gang. “Hiya, muffin,” Bill Cunningham says to his subjects, clicking as he goes.

The images of style Bill Cunningham publishes each Sunday in the New York Times are static and largely artless. Yet the people in his pictures are so engaged in imagining themselves being fashionable that the images are only partly about clothes. They are also about pretension and vanity and human frailty; still, they are optimistic pictures. They accumulate power through repetition and the photographer’s regard for detail and a method that never diverges from formula. The formula is this: stand still and watch the passing parade.

Cunningham shoots in sharp focus, in profile or straight on. He makes pictures that are clearly focused, unimaginative, because he wants to direct the viewer’s attention anywhere but to the person behind the lens. If he has, in any intentional way, set out to compile a thorough document of a certain group of people at the end of the century, as some think, you would never know it from his words. If he thinks of himself for one minute as the Eugène Atget of the fashionable world, you’ll never get him to say as much.

“If the pictures have any distinction,” Cunningham told the Fashion Group International when he received an award from the organization a few years back, “it’s because of the subject, not the photographer.” Or, as he more bluntly put it in a New York magazine profile in 1990, “I’m nothing.” This “nothingness” is, most likely, just a craftsman’s practiced transparency, a way to create distance from, and maybe even mildly to rebuke, the culture of celebrity. You cannot get him to admit that, either. “One of Bill’s favorite sayings, when anyone starts taking the fashion scene too seriously,” explains Visionaire editor Stephen Gan, a friend of the photographer, “is ‘Oops, you’re falling into the traps of the rich.’” One way Cunningham has avoided falling into those traps is by barricading himself behind a working method that is stringent and distanced and scrupulous. There is little chance that future esthetes will find themselves poring over Cunningham’s oeuvre, but archivists and cultural historians will probably bless his name.

Who is he? Who is this man on the street with a newsboy’s cap turned backward, a man who resembles Franklin Pangborn, the slightly fruity floorwalker from ’30s movies, the man invariably at the front row of both major and obscure fashion shows, wearing a blue utility jacket that makes him look as if he works in a florist shop? How is it that he knows everyone?

The biography is sketchy, but this much, at least, is known. Bill Cunningham was born outside of Boston to a Catholic family about six decades ago, photographed his first fashion show in 1947, worked as a stock boy in a Boston department store and later at Bonwit’s, served in the Army, and, when he got out, immediately began making “muffs, hats, masks, furniture and decorative items” of feathers. He signed them on broadcloth ribbons with the name William J. “I haven’t seen feathers worked this way since before the War in Paris,” Ruth Jacobs, the superannuated fashion editor of Women’s Wear Daily, was said to have remarked when a messenger brought several models for her approval. “Interview William J.,” she instructed Bernadine Morris, then a reporter on her staff. “Can you tell me where I can find William J.?” Morris asked the messenger. “I am William J.,” he replied.

For a time in the early ’60s, Cunningham ran a shop in a small frame building on Job’s Lane in Southampton, Long Island, in the window of which he placed a single straw sun hat the size of a beach umbrella. He lived in the back of the shop and cooked on a hot plate and slept in a camp bed and hung what there was of his wardrobe over other freelance jobs, with both uptown and downtown magazines and newspapers, including a productive stint with the pre–Condé Nast Details, a pioneer in its coverage of demimonde fashion in the ’80s. Cunningham became known for his encyclopedic chronicling of the fashion shows in his spreads for Details, which culminated in a 101-page feature for the magazine in March 1991. There are two versions of how Cunningham first came the closet door. “He had one pair of clean khakis and one shirt and one pair of underwear on a hanger,” says Morris, who became one of Cunningham’s closest friends. “The other outfit he wore.” By 1963, Cunningham had abandoned the millinery business and was hired as a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily. He coined impious turns of phrase to describe the fashionable (“Arrogant Elegance!”) and was fired after only nine months. Next he freelanced as a fashion correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, where the perks included annual trips to cover European couture. From there he went on to pick up a camera. In one, British photographer Harold Chapman, working for the New York Times in Paris, suggested to him that it would be easier to take pictures of fashion than to make his usual elaborate notes. In another story, the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez gave Cunningham the first camera he had owned since a boyhood Brownie. In any case, the apparatus unexpectedly provided for Cunningham a means to put his eye and memory and doggedness and appetite for fashion to its best possible use. “The way nuns take vows of poverty or chastity, Bill took a vow of fashion,” Lopez once told me. In the brief speech Cunningham gave to the Fashion Group International, the photographer revealed something of the appetites masked by his studied meekness when he spoke of “a roaring passion . . . unleashed to document everything I had known, seen and dreamed of in fashion.”

STAY A MINUTE, child.“ Cunningham is outside the Gertrude tent at the semiannual fashion shows at Seventh on Sixth, snapping the picture of a woman in a pea jacket who’s caught his eye. Moments ago he was deep in conversation with Esquire editor Woody Hochswender. Suddenly, midsentence, he was off. ”The one main thing to know about Bill is he’s not going to be deterred,“ says Hochswender. ”You could be having the most intense conversation of your life with him, and he’ll see three women coming out of the tents wearing looks he wants and he’s gone.“ When he catches up, the women are invariably happy to see him, to pose. Everyone in the fashion world seems to know Bill Cunningham; that is, they know and welcome, in the middle of the rugby scrum that passes for a journalistic corps at fashion shows, the steady and determined presence of this man whose name they may not, in every case, be able to conjure. ”It’s so easy for people to take Bill for granted,“ says Hochswender. ”It’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s probably the best fashion journalist alive. Bill is on the street 30 hours a week. He’s really obsessed."

I once made a study of Cunningham’s movements, surreptitiously following him around town as he photographed pedestrians on 42nd Street on a chilly morning and then snapped society ladies outside Harry Winston’s shop on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, and later trained his lens on a charity party whose guests were mainly fashionable members of the gay bourgeoisie. Wherever he was, whether shooting the moneyed, or street kids, he moved in a hyperalert, scouting way that put me in mind of hunting hounds. “Bill has the eye,” says Hochswender. “He watches the scene with great particularity. He really watches.”

He does it with a dedication fanatic almost to the point of self-parody. People will tell you that Cunningham’s a monk, an eccentric, an ascetic. When he covers European couture shows, for the New York Times, for example, it’s well known that he pays his own airfare. While the rest of the fashion pack stays at the George V or the Crillon, Cunningham puts up in Les Halles lodgings where no one visits him, and where the phone is in the lobby, and where the bathroom is shared, and where he has the manager remove the mattress from its frame and then the frame from the room so that Cunningham can sleep in a corner on the floor. I have heard so often about Bill Cunningham’s Spartan habits that when I hear his name I sometimes reflexively imagine St. Teresa sleeping on her bed of logs.

He once claimed to have bought no new clothes in 30 years. He is rumored to keep what few changes of dress he has on the hooks of the numerous file cabinets that line his living space, and says, “It’s not that I’m not interested in clothes. Mine are functional—just camouflage—to blend in. I need clothes that make me invisible when I’m photographing.” His philosophy is “small upkeep, small worries.” And he won’t, in Bernadine Morris’ words, “take nuttin’ from nobody.” In a field where narcissism is institutional and self-promotion is fetishized, what draws notice to Cunningham is his ostentatious humility. “But you’ll never know him,” an old friend says. “You’ll never know what he knows or what he has.”

Cunningham’s vast archive is housed in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall that, says Stephen Gan, “is like living in one huge filing cabinet.” Stored in the cabinet is a secreted record of fashion for at least the last 30 years. Cunningham wants no attention. He has refused for years to publish a book or be interviewed. “No one knows what he’ll do with it all,” says Morris. “God forbid the pictures get lost.” Not long after I spent the day following Cunningham around, I ran into him outside the Bryant Park Café. He was there making small talk with three young modeling hopefuls seated on a bench. When I approached him, he immediately recoiled. As I explained my wish to write about him, his face got red and he began to back away. “Oh, no! No, no, no!” he said. “I’m totally against publicity. Oh, no, no! It’s the destruction of everything.”