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Bill Cunningham, photographer, 1929-2016

Bill Cunningham at New York Fashion Week - Men's in 2015. (Photo by Mike Elek)

I never knew Bill Cunningham, and in fact I didn’t really know anything about him until someone at a fashion show mentioned him.

They gave me that “you haven’t heard of Bill Cunningham?” look.

In the fashion world, Bill Cunningham probably was as well known as Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour.

I saw Bill a few times in and around New York Fashion Week. I watched him as he moved unobtrusively through the crowd, raising his Nikon to his eye to take a few shots here and there.

Like Anna Wintour, he didn’t need an invitation to attend an event. Wearing his trademark blue smock, he simply walked to the door, and it automatically opened for him.

I’d like to think that it was because the designers had respect for him that they gave him the “open door” approach.

From all that I’ve read, Bill lived a simple life and preferred it that way.

He didn’t want to be in the spotlight, and I think he found it a distraction to the life that he wanted to pursue.

News reports on his death this week at the age of 87 tell of him living in a small apartment above Carnegie Hall for most of his adult life, sleeping on a cot while he was surrounded by boxes that held the thousands of negatives from his many years of photography.

He refused job offers from the New York Times for years, finally agreeing to join the staff in his 70s because of the need for health insurance. For many years prior, he reportedly refused to cash checks from assignments. The Times quoted him as saying, “Money's the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

At several shows, I was going to speak to him, but he moved quickly and quietly, and I could never seem to find that idle moment. Photographers don’t interrupt other photographers while they are working.

Bill didn’t talk with many people while he worked. He didn’t seem to enjoy rubbing elbows with the fashion world elite.

Bill came to photography late in life – in his 30s. Photography has little do with age. It’s not about how quickly we start – it’s about what we do with the time that we spend using our camera.

Bill shot with a smaller Nikon DSLR.. He didn’t go for the massive pro-level camera. Maybe it had to do with his age, or maybe it was because he preferred not to draw attention to himself. I also noticed that Bill didn’t use a zoom. I tried to see a few times the lens that he had on the camera, but Bill was always on the move.

In a piece he wrote for the New York Times (read article), Bill mentions that his first camera was a half-frame Olympus Pen-D, costing him about $35. For many years, he shot a Nikon FM, finally switching to a digital camera in this decade.

Bill is well known for photographing the cultural changes that began in the 1960s. New York City certainly was a reflection of that, because it wasn’t immersed in the hippie culture that was prevalent on the West Coast. Rather, New York has always been a mix of wealthy, poor, middle class and numerous races and religions.

He worked the streets for decades, always shooting and always recording the city that was his home. The New York Times said that as recently as a few weeks ago, he was working on a black and white series. I think it's fair to say that he was very passionate about street photography.

I would expect that several designers will honor Bill Cunningham at their shows in September.

I hope that they do it in a modest way – something that would match the man’s own approach to life.

About the Author

Mike Elek is a longtime journalist and was one of the original editors for The Wall Street Journal Online. He also has worked as a reporter and editor in Pittsburgh; Philadelphia; Vineland, N.J.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; New York City; and Hong Kong. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran. He shoots with film and digital cameras.