A look at the photographs that almost made Bill’s column this year, explained by his longtime collaborator.
Every Sunday, after Bill had gone to church, I could be sure that my phone would ring. “Kurdewan … Bill Cunningham here,” he would say, as if I didn’t know, every time. Every week we would talk about the his pages “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” and he was always very concerned about whether the reader was getting bored with them. It always amazed me that he would even think that. And every Sunday we would start planning our course for the next week, like how many parties he had to go to (sometimes it was 15 or 16) and which charities he wanted to cover. I would tell him he had to start slowing down, but, of course, he never listened.
I would download about 2,000 photos he shot each week. He would go out every day — rain, snow, sleet, hurricane (yes, he went out during Hurricane Sandy), heat wave or blizzard. He never took a vacation day and never called in sick. Once, he came in with a broken kneecap.
And then it became a process of him sorting his photo printouts in stacks, using his paper clips (The Times must have spent hundreds of dollars on Bill’s paper clips) and picking the ones he wanted.
We would start at 10 a.m. every day with our coffee, and he would go over each and every photo. And with each you got a story. He would go into great detail on why he shot it and what he was looking for. He had his standards of what went into the paper and what would never be seen. We always made sure the photo was flattering; he was very concerned with not making people look bad.
He went over each photo several times, going back and forth to make sure it was the right look. Bill had his own method of determining whether a photo made the page or didn’t. Sometimes he didn’t like the angle, sometimes he didn’t like the expression on someone’s face, and sometimes he wanted to save it for another trend.
At any given time, Bill was working on multiple trends in his head and he could remember a photo he had shot months earlier and add it in. And sometimes on Friday, right up to our 3:30 p.m. deadline, he would come back and change the whole page.
Inevitably, there were photos he loved that didn’t make the page. There was only so much room. Below are some of those pictures.
We now have a history of fashion like none other thanks to Bill: a son, a brother, an uncle, a milliner, a soldier, a photographer. But to me, my closest friend.
When Bill was in his 20s he made custom hats under the name of William J. for Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Ava Gardner and many more among the high society of New York. He would put special feathers that he collected over many years into the hats. His fascination with hats lasted throughout his career. Actually, his last “On the Street” page was about the hats at Liberty State Park. These are the fur hats we would call “Russian hats,” and who other than Bill would know exactly the type of fur each was made of? He would stay out there for days until he thought he had enough to create a page on a specific type of hat.
Winter was Bill’s favorite time because after a big snowstorm there would be mounds of snow at the crosswalks. He would get into a position where he could photograph people climbing, jumping or walking through giant puddles of slush, cold water and snow. He thought it was so funny to see the dance that people would do to avoid getting their shoes wet. And he was endlessly fascinated with the businessmen who refused to wear snow shoes. That made him laugh.
Bill enjoyed it when he saw men who took pride in dressing themselves and expressing their sense of style. We would talk about why he chose to photograph each look — the tailoring of a coat, the lapels, the color of the shoes. Just as he would if it were a woman in a dress. He told me that he dressed like a dandy when he was younger. And he always wore a tie when he was photographing society events. It was his way of showing respect.
The Bryant Park Fountain
Bill loved documenting the Bryant Park fountain. In the winter, he would photograph it daily, sometimes multiple times a day, so he could get the perfect photo of it turning into a block of ice. We have so many photos of it that I got lost on which photo was from which day. In the spring, when the ice started to melt, Bill would walk by every day to capture that. I think he was amazed by how nature took over. It was beautiful to him.
In New York City, it’s so dark and dreary in the winter that someone wearing all white stood out to Bill in the sea of people wearing all black. He was amazed that they didn’t get their whites dirty on the subway or streets. He loved people committing to a look, and all white in the city is definitely a commitment.
Bill could find humor in almost every situation. People battling blizzard winds with a little umbrella made him giddy. He would spend the whole day out in a storm until he could come back with the right photos. He loved photographing the elements and the images they created. To him, being out there all day in the cold, even for one photo, was worth it.
There was a tremendous amount of respect between Bill and Anna Wintour, or “Ms. Wintour” as he called her. She was the only person in the world who could get him off his bike in the blizzard in 2013. She asked him to get in the car to be driven home, but he made her take him to The Times so he could get back to work. In these photos, Ms. Wintour is smiling for Bill. They had a special friendship.
Bill was infatuated with footwear. The fascination rubbed off on me because we were both in awe of women who could wear six-inch heels and teeter across the street as if they were walking on water. He even loved photographing women going from high heels to flats on the street. He would dedicate entire pages to one shoe trend.
There was a group of stylish people who would gather on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, at what is now known as Bill Cunningham Corner. He would start photographing each person because of what they had put together to dress themselves, or as he would call it, “their armor.” He was struck that they were so creatively dressed on their way to work at 9:30 in the morning. Over the years, they developed a friendship.
Black and White
The standard colors of New York. We were always amazed at how, just as summer was over, New Yorkers would fall into line and wear black. The combination of the colors and graphic elements like polka dots, stripes and zigzags, would catch Bill’s eye.
Bill loved colors. And he especially loved when colorful clothing matched with nature. His fascination with nature began when his father brought flowers home from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where he was from. Each year Bill would go up to the museum to photograph the hanging of the nasturtiums, a delicate process that he called “a ballet.” The more elaborate the color, the more excited he got. To him, color was a sign of life and joy.
Daring young people changing their hair color — Bill was amazed by that. He was fascinated by the young because he said they kept him young. And from his smile you could tell he was forever young. I was amazed when he came back with photos of people with hair colors I didn’t think were possible.
Bill was always able to find people wearing leopard: leopard hats, leopard scarfs, leopard skirts, leopard shoes, leopard handbags, leopard coats. He could go out on any given day and find someone wearing leopard. And he would come back and build a collection.
The Easter Parade
Bill was like a kid in a candy store at the Easter parade because people from all walks of life would come out dressed up in bright colors to celebrate the beginning of spring and the blossoming of flowers after a dreary winter. He loved to the creative ideas: for example, the guys wearing the plaid bunny ear hats (top left). He loved the guy on the Segway dressed all in white (bottom left). These photos didn’t make the page only because we had too many good options to choose from.
Women’s hats are a relic of a bygone era that Bill loved because he was a milliner. He would look forward to the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservatory “Hat Luncheon” (pictured above) because it was one of the few occasions when women still wore hats. He recognized them as amazing works of art because he knew what went into making them. See the woman wearing a butterfly in her hat (top center)? He loved that.
Bill absolutely loved animals. At one time, he had two French poodles. That’s where his obsession with animals came from. He would go to the farmers’ market in Union Square to watch people come in with their pets and to see how they had dressed their dogs in elaborate costumes. He knew I had dogs and would always joke with me, “Kurdewan, would you dress your dogs up in this?” I had to tell him that German shepherds don’t get dressed up. And he would bring bones back for me to take home for the dogs.
Women With Flowers
Every Saturday, Bill would go to the Union Square farmers’ market to see what people were wearing, and which flowers they chose. He would often find people’s clothes matching the flowers they were picking out. That was his Saturday morning ritual until the very end.