Last Sunday, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Sunday edition of the New York Times did not include photographs taken by the legendary street and society photographer Bill Cunningham. The Times put out a statement saying that he had suffered a stroke. A few days later, Cunningham was dead at 87 years old.
The iconic photographer was born in 1929, in Boston. He dropped out of Harvard University and fought in the Army before moving to New York to become a milliner. In 1962, when high-fashion hats went out of style, he turned to writing and then photography. In the late 1970s, he published his first photo series in the Times, a candid image of the reclusive actress Greta Garbo. For the next four decades, he worked as a New York Times photographer, studying the streets and attending the parties of New York, distilling personal style.
My fascination with the white-haired, 35 mm camera-slinging photographer started in earnest when I was 15 years old. Each Sunday I got a copy of the Sunday New York Times to primarily look at the pictures Cunningham shot. Each time his photographs inspired my sense of self and style, and I would cut them out, taping them to my bedroom walls. For me, these small, rectangular newspaper photos were testaments of the moments and lives that are mostly obscured. Regularly, he shot boys like me. I remember one particular set of photos of black men sagging their pants and images of queer boys on the pier twirling in the sunlight. In both sets of images, he captured the people who are often the last to be photographed.
In 2012, at an opening of the exhibition Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video at the Guggenheim Museum, Cunningham took his first picture of me. As he snapped, Anna Wintour's apt understanding of the power of Cunningham's eye—"We all get dressed for Bill"—flooded my mind. On that day, though, I had not. I was wearing a red Chicago Bulls Mitchell and Ness cap, tight leather pants over white leggings, yellow New Balances, and a black shirt underneath a Chloe Sevigny for Opening Ceremony polka-dot jacket. I experiment judiciously, and Cunningham, who favored bold eccentricity, got it.
My first very brief conversation with Cunningham happened one night we were celebrating his 85th birthday and the opening of his exhibition Bill Cunningham: Facades. Standing in the middle of the large ballroom at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library, I looked up to find him snapping pictures of me. He slumped toward me. "All that fringe!" he yelped, gesturing toward my jacket, a cropped Marques's Almeida white denim jacket, distressed at the edges. "What does your mother think of all that fringe, chile?" He was gone before I could answer, taking pictures of someone else who caught his eye.
There were other pictures, too. I would see him and he would say, "Chile, that hat!" referring to the wide-brim hats I wear, before snapping some photographs. Once, he singled a friend and me out and wrote: "Last month at the polo matches, one couple, right, were the only two among 8,000 who wore the look of the moment." Last year, at the Armory Show Art Fair, he looked at me after taking pictures of a young man wearing a black dress over jeans and exclaimed, "I love the children!" The line was his way of encouraging what he liked to see in the world.
The excitement of having your photograph taken by Bill Cunningham was heightened by the fact that it placed you among all the others he has caught with his lens. You became a part of the story—sometimes embarrassingly so—he was telling street by street about New York. His pictures are tribal—the many vibrant differences that make up the entire city are on display. The photographs he took of me made me feel, above all, like a New Yorker.
The excitement of having your photograph taken by Bill Cunningham was heightened by the fact that it placed you among all the others he has caught with his lens. You became a part of the story—sometimes embarrassingly so—he was telling street by street about New York.
What he leaves behind are photographs that cut through standard representations of beauty, fashion, and durable imagery to create both a visually and socially vibrant mosaic. He shot people on the streets of New York relentlessly. Cunningham's photography packed so much individuality and style into one frame that they inspired in their viewers a kind of reciprocal empowerment. His reportage-style photographs endure as a diary of singular moments in lives that mostly go unseen. I see the pictures that survive him as questioning and expanding our notions of style and grace.
Cunningham knew, as Hilton Als wrote in a post-script of his life for the New Yorker, that photographs "don't lie." Cunningham's "On the Street" column made true the idea that "a picture is worth a thousand words." For his subjects, his shots gave voice and so often corrected the record. He once wrote, "The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don't see at the fashion shows. You find information for readers so they can visualize themselves."
The last conversation I had with Cunningham, we were standing on the steps to MoMA's sculpture garden and I asked him why he takes photographs. He looked at me, grinned, and said, "Chile, if I didn't take them, who would?" Then he took my picture.
Follow Antwaun Sargent on Twitter.