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Legendary Street Style Photog Bill Cunningham Reflects on His Storied Career

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Photo: Noam Galai for Getty Images

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Women like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Katharine Hepburn are icons of the past to most of us, but for legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, they are just "normal people" on his long, impressive list of influential acquaintances and subjects.

The 85-year-old Boston native spoke to a packed house at 92Y in Manhattan last night to kick off New York Fashion Week. Cunningham was met with moments of thunderous applause and countless standing ovations, frequently grabbing his Nikon DSLR to snap photos of the effusive audience. Speaking with the event's moderator, former CFDA Executive Director and NYFW creator Fern Mallis, Cunningham lowered his notorious privacy barrier and reflected on his life, work, and fears. Several times he paused to weep during emotional moments, only to bounce back and deliver words of wisdom with his signature enthusiasm and charm.

"I write with pictures," Cunningham said of his eye for style, which landed him gigs at places like WWD and the Chicago Tribune, and secured his 35-plus-year run as the New York Times' fashion photographer. "When I go on the street, do you think I know what I'm going to write when I go out there? Of course I don't. I let the street talk to me, and that's how you get it. When you're out, you stay out and the street speaks to you. That's how you find out what people are wearing, what's new, what's happening. If you're not on the street, you don't know anything. It's simple: Go on the street and do it."

In terms of lifestyle, things haven't changed a whole lot over the past few decades for the photography giant, who still rides his bicycle in his signature blue Parisian street-sweeper jacket and keeps thousands of boxes of film negatives stashed in his apartment. But Cunningham has lived through so many eras of fashion that his storytelling had the audience suddenly seeing black-and-white history as a colorful, animated film.

Cunningham said he has always been a creative type, interested in fashion for as long as he can remember, although that influence didn't come from his family. Emotionally describing his parents, Cunningham explained that his father had a civil service job and worked hard to make a living. His mother was incredibly shy, perhaps a trait he inherited from her, and although he owned a camera when he was young, his parents convinced him to put photography to the side. He dabbled in several jobs before moving to New York to work at a women's boutique called Chez Ninon. Cunningham later started a hat company called William J.—a label that did not include his family name as to not disrespect his father, who did not approve of a fashion career.

Cunningham spoke fondly of his years working at Chez Ninon and designing women's hats, and recalled Jackie Kennedy delivering her red Dior suit to the boutique to have it dyed black overnight for John F. Kennedy's funeral. In one instance, he recounted running over to Harper's Bazaar to provide editor Diana Vreeland some hats; to his horror, Vreeland cut some of the brim off and then mused, "Well, maybe I cut a little too much off—just add it back on!" On another occasion, Vreeland asked Cunningham for a peacock hat for the Met's costume exhibit, and he made it with a dead bird he found in Central Park.

The dedicated photographer certainly had an atypical route to success, but noted that his ambition helped him along the way. He went to Harvard for a semester before dropping out when they realized "they had the wrong guy." One of his first editors at the New York Times, Gloria Emerson, called him "hopelessly illiterate" when attempting to help him sharpen his writing skills.

But Cunningham said his intuition always led him to the next assignment: He recalled bolting out of a Oscar de la Renta fashion show in the '60s to take photos of an anti-war protest out on the street. Mallis noted that Cunningham was one of the first to document gay parades and AIDS awareness gatherings and that his photos of AIDS charity events graced the pages of the New York Times well before the epidemic was actually something that was covered.

Cunningham at last night's event. Photo: Getty Images

Cunningham also discussed how important his artistic freedom has always been to him. Staying a free agent all these years helps him maintain his integrity—a precise reason why he still pays his way to Paris, rather than letting the New York Times fund his trip. He attributed this assessment as the reason he never cashed a giant check Details gave him after the magazine (which he owned a stake in) was sold to Condé Nast.

"I'm terrified of taking money because then they own you. Oh boy, do they own you. I get along just fine," he said. "It's too dangerous to accept anything free. There's nothing free. Stay independent and don't fall into the tracks of the bridge. When the news comes, you follow the news. This way, I don't do what they want, I do what I want."

He then told the audience he believes the fashion industry is "killing itself" by handing out clothes to celebrities to wear for red carpet events. Cunningham, in general, scoffed at celebrity and paparazzi culture. "Who the hell is going to buy anything when you pay them to wear it?" he laughed. "I'm not interested in celebrity. If someone is wearing something terrific, that's what I want to photograph. Today, people don't have any manners or respect."

He said his "Out on the Street" page in the Times was never about famous people, but rather people with "taste and style." He prefers to photograph women who "dress not to be noticed" and referred to suburban New York enclaves like Westchester that still exude this attitude.

Perhaps surprisingly, since he doesn't own a cell phone or even a TV, Cunningham said he believes the fashion industry needs to adapt to technology: "The fashion world is afraid of H&M, but what they should really be thinking about are the high-tech kids. They are no longer dressing the outside of the head; this generation is dressing the inside of the head, with all of this knowledge to take us into the century. Look at the lines looking to get into the Apple store. Do you see a line waiting to get into Bergdorfs or Saks? The fashion world has got to come to grips with reality. I don't know when or how, but the reality is, you have the whole country that is electronically connected. The future belongs to this generation, electronics are it, there's no question."

For all his work and accomplishments, Cunningham laughed at the idea that he's considered a legend, and said he merely loves his job and its ability to put him in such close proximity to fashion.

"I'm a worker in the factory, concerned about what we're doing today! What I do is really deeply minor work," he said. "People should think seriously when they're invited to see the work of great artists. Think about what they're showing, look at the clothes, look what they do for the body, look how they help the woman. That's the thing to go and study. These are really great artists who are showing us their ambition; you have to concentrate and pay attention to what you're looking at. I'm so appreciative that people invite us to look. I still enjoy what I do."