On June 25th, we lost one of the pioneers of street photography and one of the gentlest and kindest souls to ever live, Mr. Bill Cunningham. He was 87 years old. We were lucky enough to know Bill (or Uncle Bill as we liked to call him) not just as fans who were hoping to have Bill’s lens on us for a moment, but as someone we saw at smaller gatherings where we were able to chat and get to know him better. He was always smiling and kind, and seemed to be happy wherever he was, as long as there were interesting people around to photograph.
He was also one of the most upbeat and positive people I’ve ever met. The best story to illustrate this happened last summer, on our way to the Jazz Age Lawn Party when we chatted with Bill on the ferry ride over. He would normally be standing, taking pictures of the attendees on their way to the Lawn Party, but this time he was sitting, due to a recent knee injury which occurred during a fall from his bicycle that he rode virtually everyday. He had a knee brace and was using a cane, and when I told him how sorry we were to see that he was injured he responded brightly, “Oh, it’s ok! It just gives me different angles to take pictures from!” I will never forget that moment. What a wonderful way to look at an injury that would stop some people in their tracks (especially at his age), and cause most people to complain. For Bill it was just another way to do his job that he loved so very much. He was the embodiment of the saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I don’t think Bill ever worked a day in his life because he loved – truly loved – what he did. By doing what he loved he brought joy to thousands and thousands of people. As an artist I can’t think of a better way to spend your life.
We sent Bill an invitation to our wedding last year, not expecting him to come, but wanting to let him know that we would love to have him there, and he responded by sending us some prints of pictures he’d taken of us at the Jazz Age Lawn Party, with a note of congratulations written along the border that read: “Dear Matthew & Michelle, Congratulations on sharing your lives in marriage. Wishing you all the happiness of life together and the pleasure of vintage dancing on Governor’s Island. What a lovely dream of dance. Thank you for all the grace and beauty of motion, dresses and period dance.” He didn’t have to do that, but he did. That’s the kind of dear man he was.
I will miss looking for his blue jacket in a crowd, and hearing Matthew whisper, “Code Blue!” which was our code that Uncle Bill had his lens on us so we better look sharp! We were lucky enough to be photographed numerous times by Bill and have our picture chosen to be in his New York Times spread about a dozen times. Each time was a thrill and we’ve kept all of the spreads in an album. The biggest surprise of all was having a picture of me dancing with a friend chosen for the New York Time’s online and print retrospective of Bill’s work that was published after his passing. What a surprise and an honor!
As Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” We will all miss Bill and we will all miss getting dressed for Bill. I hope wherever he is there are cameras, bicycles, and lots of fabulously dressed people to photograph. RIP Uncle Bill.