The Legendary Work Ethic of Photographer Bill Cunningham

The Legendary Work Ethic of Photographer Bill Cunningham

A veteran New York City party reporter reflects on what it was like to see the famed, and famously humble, photographer in action.

Shutterstock is the exclusive sponsor of Experience the Times of Bill Cunningham, an immersive installation taking place in The Seaport, New York City, through October 30. 

Two things about Bill Cunningham, the legendary photographer who for decades chronicled the worlds of philanthropy and fashion in dual New York Times columns, stood out: his work ethic and his humility. In my own work reporting on events, I was lucky enough to witness this shy, iconic photojournalist in action over the years. It’s not an exaggeration to say he raised the bar for all of us.

Cunningham was the most preferred photographer at any charity or fashion event. I once saw staffers at a Calvin Klein runway show eject someone from a front-row seat with a perfect vantage point so Bill could shoot there. And yet, he remained humble in a way so few people of his status do.

Photographer Bill Cunningham Photographer Bill Cunningham works the Paris shows. Image via Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

He famously cycled to the events he was covering around town (there were usually multiple a night) rather than take company cars or taxis. My friend, the late journalist Jeff Slonim, told me he once encountered Cunningham traveling by foot from a train in the Hamptons to work an event (Jeff ultimately gave Bill a ride to his destination).

Working nights, Cunningham refused to even accept meals at the charity galas he covered. Keep in mind, these events are, literally, dinners. Journalists covering them are routinely fed.

Photographer Bill CunninghamPhotographer Bill Cunningham bicycles to work in New York. Image via Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock.

Cunningham, who passed away in 2016 at age eighty-seven, worked constantly. He was out early every morning, in rain, snow, and sleet, snapping photos of people on their way to work for his “On the Street” column, featuring street style.

“I don’t decide anything. I let the street speak to me,” he said in the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham: New York. “And, in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is! You don’t just manufacture in your head that skirts at the knee are a thing. You go out and photograph people with skirts at the knee. You’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell YOU what it is. There are no shortcuts.”

His favorite spot was the intersection of 5th Avenue and 57th Street, which was temporarily renamed “Bill Cunningham Corner” in his honor, after his death.

Photographer Bill Cunningham New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham attends the 9th annual Jazz Age Lawn Party by Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra on Governors Island. Image via lev radin.

At a gala at Lincoln Center in 2015, Cunningham sported a full-leg cast, a Band-Aid on his forehead, and a cane. “Oh, just a little tumble on the bike,” the eighty-six-year-old told me as he continued shooting photos of the city’s movers and shakers. “It’s the kneecap that got broken. But, it’ll heal.” He didn’t even skip a day of work due to the mishap.

Cunningham kept to himself, and never wanted to be the center of attention. When he was honored with the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence in 2012, the question on everybody’s mind was: Will he show up? Will he make a speech?

“He must be in utter anguish being celebrated. He must be a wreck,” Sarah Jessica Parker, a chair of the event at the Waldorf Astoria told me. “This is his worst nightmare.”

The invitation instructed attendees to “dress for Bill.” SJP’s Oscar de la Renta gown was blue, an homage to Cunningham’s trademark blue French workman’s jacket.

“Many, many times as I’m going down an avenue, I’ll be in a cab, and I’ll see him on a bicycle or on a street corner, shooting away,” Parker said. “He’s really one of the great, great, great people of New York City.”

Bill Cunningham Bill Cunningham shooting the Asprey flagship store opening in New York, 2003. Image via Henry Lamb/BEI/Shutterstock.

Many people at that same event commented that Cunningham made them feel comfortable while taking their picture, getting them to smile, and he always made them look good in his column.

Bergdorf Goodman executive Linda Fargo described him as the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” in fashion. “Many of us are not from New York, and when I finally made it to Bill’s page, I felt like, ‘Okay, now I can finally call myself a New Yorker.’”

Earlier in her career at Bergdorf’s, Fargo was a window director, and she said that the single most difficult-to-obtain window display they’d ever gotten was a tribute to Cunningham in 2008.

Photographer Bill CunninghamLegendary fashion and style photographer Bill Cunningham (C) at the Chado Ralph Rucci fall 2009 show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York City, 2009. Image via Jason Szenes/EPA/Shutterstock.

“I thought, You know what, I’m not going to ask someone [for permission], I’m just going to directly ask him. And, every time I tried, I got the, Oh child, child”—one of his trademark responses—“and he’d start to kind of back away, and immediately start snapping someone who was in the vicinity.”

It took her ten years of pleading and asking others to speak to him until he finally agreed to the tribute. “Finally, our president ended up at a dinner with [Times chairman] Arthur Sulzberger, and I think that was our tipping point.”

Cunningham did turn up at the Carnegie Medal gala, but ducked out, heading to a Waldorf ballroom across the way to shoot photos at a different charity event. He did eventually return to his own party, removing his blue jacket to reveal a tuxedo, and proceeded to greet his admirers—while snapping pictures.

Bill Cunningham with Nadège du Bospertus and Susan Holmes Bill Cunningham with models Nadège du Bospertus (L) and Susan Holmes (R), Vogue, 1992. Image via Arthur Elgort/Condé Nast/Shutterstock.

The award ceremony began, the guest of honor was lauded by dignitaries, and Cunningham approached the stage. He held the award high and said, “Well, what can one possibly say? I’ve been struggling with it, and I have notes.” He unfurled a three-foot-long sheet of paper to big laughs from the crowd.

“Everyone in this room, that’s why I’m here. Because of you, not me,” he said, and to everyone’s surprise and delight, Cunningham continued to speak for over fifteen minutes.

With humor, he praised the philanthropists he chronicled in his “Evening Hours” column, many of whom had become his friends, as well as Carnegie Hall, where he had lived for sixty years, and the New York Times. Occasionally, he choked up and paused until he regained his composure.

After the ceremony, guests mingled and drifted into an after-party in another room, and Cunningham was in the center of it all, shooting photos and laughing.

Experience The Times of Bill Cunningham is located at 26 Fulton Street, New York. Admission is $30. Tickets may be purchased online at timesofbill.com.

Bill Cunningham Exhibit Bill Cunningham Exhibit Bill Cunningham Bicycle Bill Cunningham Exhibit Bill Cunningham Exhibit Bill Cunningham Book CollectionBill Cunningham Book CollectionBill Cunningham Exhibit

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Cover image via lev radin.

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