The “Bill” in question is 80+ New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. For decades, this Schwinn-riding cultural anthropologist has been obsessively and inventively chronicling fashion trends and high society charity soirées for the Times Style section in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours.” Documenting uptown fixtures (Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor, David Rockefeller—who all appear in the film out of their love for Bill), downtown eccentrics and everyone in between, Cunningham’s enormous body of work is more reliable than any catwalk as an expression of time, place and individual flair. In turn, Bill Cunningham New York is a delicate, funny and often poignant portrait of a dedicated artist whose only wealth is his own humanity and unassuming grace.
William J. Cunningham (born 1928/9) is a fashion photographer for The New York Times, known for his candid street photography.
Bill dropped out of Harvard University in 1948 and moved to New York, where he initially worked in advertising. Not long after, he quit his job and struck out on his own, making hats under the name “William J.” After being drafted and serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York and got a job writing for the Chicago Tribune. During his years as a writer, he contributed significantly to fashion journalism, introducing American audiences to Azzedine Alaia and Jean-Paul Gaultier. While working at the Tribune and at Women’s Wear Daily, he began taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. As the result of a chance photograph of Greta Garbo, he published a group of his impromptu pictures in the Times in December 1978, which soon became a regular series. His editor, Arthur Gelb, has called these photographs “a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission.”
Bill photographs people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan every day. Most of his pictures, he has said, are never published. Designer Oscar de la Renta has said, “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” Though he has made a career out of unexpected photographs of celebrities, socialites, and fashion personalities, many in those categories value his company. According to David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor asked he be invited to her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media so honored.
In 2008 Bill was awarded the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.