Music Matters
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Bill Cunningham, Beloved New York Times Fashion Photographer, Dies At 87


For nearly 40 years, shooting for The New York Times, photographer Bill Cunningham chronicled fashion. He was an unlikely cultural anthropologist, according to the newspaper, often parking himself in midtown Manhattan to capture the style on the street. He died yesterday at age 87. The New York Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, joins us on the line now to help remember Bill Cunningham. Welcome to the program.

DEAN BAQUET: Thanks for inviting me. I'm happy to talk about Bill.

WERTHEIMER: Reading stories about him, I was struck about how many times people mentioned that he was a kind and gentle person.

BAQUET: It was remarkable. You know, he was this - in the newsroom he was this figure walking around in his blue smock, always smiling, always just really happy. He loved what he did, it was - he had this wonderful, wonderful sort of New England accent, And this just big smile. He was just a tremendously bright, admiring figure who made you feel good about being in work when you saw him.

WERTHEIMER: So not a paparazzi?

BAQUET: Not at all a paparazzi. In fact, the remarkable thing about him is he spent all of this time with very, very wealthy people, obviously. And he would never take a meal. He would never take - he would never sit down with them and eat when he shot pictures at their events. He just thought he saw himself as a journalist and an observer. He would always warn younger journalists, don't aspire to be like the people who you cover.

WERTHEIMER: What was his style? Do you think that you could pick out a Bill Cunningham photo?

BAQUET: Yes. When I looked at a sort of grouping of Bill Cunningham pictures - first of all, they were a remarkable portrait of New York. There were people who were very expensively dressed. There were people who were just stylishly dressed. There were people who looked like they enjoyed fashion, they looked at the camera, they looked at him. I think a Bill Cunningham picture would have sometimes outlandish fashion, sometimes things that people wouldn't necessarily see easily as fashion until you looked at it for a little bit. But mainly, the people looked happy in their own skin and happy in their clothes.

WERTHEIMER: How did he work? How did he do what he did?

BAQUET: He got on his bike (laughter) and he rode all around the city. I live in...

WERTHEIMER: At the age of 87?


WERTHEIMER: Oh, my goodness.

BAQUET: He went through about 30 bikes, I think. And I live in Greenwich Village and I would often see him in the farmer's market just sort of tooling around the farmer's market. And when I was on Madison Avenue, sometimes shopping, I would see him tooling around. He would just bike around the city looking. He would tool around and he would just look for stuff that caught his eye. He would look for patterns. He was also sort of a fashion historian. He would notice these - he would notice things before other people noticed them. He would notice that some colors were coming back. He would notice that hats were in. He wasn't just a photographer, he was somebody - he really was an anthropologist.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he covered fashion, I guess, after his fashion. Most of the time with civilians - those are the pictures I remember - people wearing black and white - that was recently - people out on a spring day without coats.

BAQUET: That's right. He also, though, he would also do charity balls and events where there were celebrities. He did those, too. But I think his most memorable work was of sort of normal people on the street who were a bit of - who were sort of peacocks. But he also did the opera, the Met Ball. He did all the big events, too.

WERTHEIMER: Occasionally fashionable dogs.

BAQUET: Occasionally fashionable dogs, too. There was something joyous and joyful in his work, there really just was. You didn't feel like his people were posed. And you also thought - I think he wanted to bring New York to the pages of The Times. I mean, there were people of color. There were people who were gay. There were people who were dressed very staid. There were people who were dressed flamboyantly. I think he was just open to anything.

WERTHEIMER: New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet remembering photographer Bill Cunningham who died yesterday at the age of 87. Dean, thank you very much.

BAQUET: Thank you so much. Thanks for inviting me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.