The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Bill Cunningham taught us about ethical journalism

New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has died in hospital where was taken after suffering a stroke. (Video: Reuters)
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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 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.

He was known for his blue French workman’s jacket. It was utterly basic. Wholly of the people. Its only flourish was the bold shade of blue, which on Cunningham seemed less about aesthetics and more about rebellion. Against what? The quotidian elegance of fashion’s favorite color: black. In a sea of black-cloaked editors, Cunningham was not part of the pack. He was not a fashion lemming. He was not chic; he was working.

He was known for photographing the most rarefied parties and galas but never partaking of even an hors d’oeuvre or sip of champagne. He tooled around on his bicycle rather than a black Town Car. He stood in the rain, the snow, the cold, the wind focused on nothing more than getting the photograph that he wanted. He always seemed to be working so hard — even as the energy of those many generations his junior had long since flagged.

He called people “kid” and “child.” And he always did so with a combination of dismay and enthusiasm in his voice. His tone always suggested that he suspected — hoped — that everyone was up to something interesting, naughty and just possibly “mahvelous” — as he might say. (He graciously gave this writer permission to include his photographs in her book.)

In many ways, journalism has veered away from telling other people’s stories and instead spends a great deal of time focused on the opinions, style, and personality of the journalist. Fashion has its preening bloggers. Politics has its talking heads. Tech has its know-it-all-and-tell-everyone-about-it millionaires. And everyone has a collection of selfies.

Cunningham didn’t just prefer to stay in the background, he believed that as a journalist it was the only way that he could do his job. When Bergdorf Goodman celebrated his work in its windows and threw a party in his honor, he spent the evening photographing the other guests. After finally agreeing to participate in the 2010 documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” he lamented the constant intrusions that the notoriety brought him as strangers interrupted his work to say hello or ask for a selfie. How could he be a fly-on-the-wall if everyone was looking at him?

Cunningham could be abrupt or brusque to those who got in between his camera and his subject. Do not block his shot! But he was also known for his warmth and quiet. He was not a diva in an industry that seems to cultivate them.

He embraced diversity. He had a soft spot for youthful exuberance and wily outsiders. In his quest to document personal style, he used a wide lens.

So many of the traits that made Cunningham respected and admired are those that should be common in journalism — but often go missing, particularly in fashion reporting. He guarded his integrity with ferocity. He focused on his work — not the seating chart, the gift bag or his personal brand — with joy and passion.

And through the long days, the competing crowds and the petty distractions, he was a gentleman.

Read The Washington Post obituary:

Bill Cunningham, photographer of New York street fashion, dies at 87