From Tommy Ton to GarçonJon, the world’s best street style shooters tell us how they’ll remember the man with the bike and blue jacket
Over the weekend, the fashion industry lost one of its icons. Renowned not just for the photos he took, but for the uninhibited joy with which he captured them, Bill Cunningham had been photographing style on the streets for almost four decades, chronicling the role played by fashion in a changing world. In an era and an industry increasingly defined by egocentrism, where a person’s integrity is often secondary to their Instagram following, Cunningham’s work was always authentic, motivated by passion rather than money or fame. (In fact, he famously ripped up cheques from magazines, and brushed off the notoriety the documentary about his life brought him.) Cunningham’s photography was about putting the spotlight on others, not himself – as Jacob Bernstein’s obituary for him in the New York Times read, “He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed.”
As the founding father of the phenomenon of street style photography, Cunningham inspired a new generation of image-makers – many of whom look to him as the undisputed master of their genre. To mark his passing, we asked some of the most preeminent to contribute their memories of him, from taking his portrait to having him take theirs, and the offhand moments they will always remember him for.
“One time outside a show in New York, I think it was Thom Browne, I saw Bill pointing his camera in my general direction. I didn’t want to mess up his shot, so I started shuffling my feet to the left to get out of his way. I looked up, and his lens was still pointed at me, so I started shuffling to the left some more. I was curious though, so peeked over my shoulder to see what outfit had caught his interest. But then I heard a hearty chuckle and saw him flash a bright smile, ‘No silly child, you!’ After all those years, I finally understood his power to make people happy. I literally was walking on air after that. A minute later, somebody’s black town car backed up on to his foot... I guess he was OK though, since I remember seeing him shooting again the next day. I probably would have just stayed at home crying.” – Phil Oh, @mrstreetpeeper
“I first picked up a copy of the New York Times in my teens. A family friend mailed me one highlighting a page of street photography, hearing of my new purchase, a 35mm camera. Little did I know, but the photographs by Bill Cunningham would later come to define my career for the next decade. I followed that article as often as I could and when narrated videos began being published online I was hooked. It wasn’t until 2009 that I would meet the man himself. I saw him one morning in the Tuileries in Paris outside the womenswear shows for Fall. I was too nervous to approach. I spent all afternoon kicking myself for not talking to him or watching him work more closely.
“Late that same evening after a day of shooting, I left an empty metro station in Le Marais, walking up the stairs behind a man in a blue coat. I recognised the colour instantly. I excitedly caught up with him and without double-checking I called out his name. It was Bill Cunningham. He was patient and kind, answered my questions and humbly accepted my praise. I asked him to dinner to which he replied, ‘Thank you but I’m just going to get a sandwich.’ At the time I was utterly disappointed, presuming dinner with a fan would be too much hard work. It wasn’t until the following year when I saw the documentary about him that I saw that, in fact, he never goes out for dinner. A sandwich works for him every time. Bill Cunningham’s work ethic and curiosity for people is something I often think about when I’m shooting. When I’m tired or uninspired on the road, I often ask myself, ‘What would Bill do?’ It works every time.” – Jonathan Daniel Pryce, @garconjon
“When I’m tired or uninspired on the road, I often ask myself, ‘What would Bill do?’ It works every time” – Jonathan Daniel Pryce
“Bill was the first. A visionary, influencer and hard-working chronicler of the evolution of style. In all the years I have seen him outside the shows he was always smiling, friendly and happy to stay in the background while he calmly observed the circus. I will miss him very much.” – Søren Jepsen, @thelocals
“Some legends walk by you and you hardly notice them because that’s exactly what they want. Bill Cunningham was like this, and all his life he was able to keep that fire and the perfect distance from his subject, distance that allowed him to do the work that he did. He was always going, going, going, (through) rain, snow, heat, always smiling. He is a role model for many photographers, and definitely for me, though I always knew I could never touch that level of dedication – and selflessness. So at the shows, I used to let him go, go, go and just tried to not get in his way, that was the best way to show him all the good things I thought about him... Because, as you can imagine, he didn’t care for a selfie. Goodbye, Bill, you will be missed.” – Garance Doré, @garancedore
“Bill walked on to my train asking me if it was the right one to go to The Cloisters. I knew exactly who he was but didn’t let on about it. We walked through the tapestry room and he told me about the parties he’d shot there with the Rockefellers. He defines an era which is increasingly slipping away. His photography is the benchmark for what I do, and as a photographer I can only ever hope to make a fraction of the impact that he has.” – Adam Katz Sinding, @le21eme
“Bill Cunningham was truly a remarkable man. There are no words to describe how saddening it is to lose such a passionate and beautiful soul. Whenever he smiled after capturing an image, it was so contagious as it brought so much joy to him.” – Tommy Ton, @tommyton
“His photography is the benchmark for what I do, and as a photographer I can only ever hope to make a fraction of the impact that he has” – Adam Katz Sinding, @le21eme
“This photo (above) was taken on 30th September 2013 during Paris Fashion Week at the corner of Ecole de Médecine in Paris. I remember I felt a little nervous to ask Bill if it was OK to take a photo of him. Taking a photo of a photographer is always a bit like that, but his presence and his blue jacket beautifully stood out at the corner of the street and I couldn’t resist. His work taught me how important it is to continue what you believe in, and that that maintains the pureness of photography. I feel that he followed his instincts at all times. He shot very quickly with a lovely smile on his face – I can see that he absolutely loved what he did. Shooting outside on the street is sometimes tough, you really need to love what you do in order to keep going. He did that for all his life. He is probably still taking photos in heaven.” – Yu Fujiwara, @8and2
“I was inspired to start shooting ‘street style’ when I watched the Bill Cunningham documentary in 2011. I have seen him a few times around town and he was always so focused and excited about his work. I respect him tremendously and am very sad he is gone. He has left an amazing legacy and body of work that will be forever valuable in documenting what people wore around the world.” – Melodie Jeng, @melodiejeng
“Bill was like a blue panther. He was not walking, he was slipping through the crowd, discreetly, almost invisibly. Thanks for the lesson Bill!” – Yvan Rodic, @facehunter