What it was like to work for legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham


On June 25, New York City and the fashion community lost an icon. New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, known for his weekly photo spread “On the Streets,” died after a stroke.

During his 40-year career with The Times, Cunningham captured the fashionable residents of New York on a daily basis.

“He’s never missed a day of work. He worked seven days a week,” his assistant, John Kurdewan, told Business Insider.

In the field, Cunningham wore his blue jacket and camera like a second skin, rode his bike (his preferred mode of transportation) around Midtown Manhattan, and looked for citygoers with a singular sense of style.

While Cunningham’s work was visible to all through his column, few were offered a behind-the-scenes look at his process and life. But Kurdewan, who has worked alongside Cunningham for the past 10 years, provided a glimpse into the life of the beloved photographer through his Instagram account.

In remembrance of Cunningham, here are some pictures from Kurdewan’s page that look into the life of the late photojournalist.

After making hard copies of his photos, Cunningham would categorize each image and place it in a pile. Then he would pull images from certain piles to match the theme of the newspaper spread he was working on. ‘He would pull up photos from two, three years ago to match because he knew he had shot it,’ Kurdewan told Business Insider. ‘His memory was excellent.’

The boss just back from a fashion show starts working on the next street for the week

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‘You couldn’t trick him, especially when it came to fashion. That’s the one thing he was passionate about. He knew which designers did what and which designers would copy styles from 40 to 50 years ago,’ Kurdewan said. Sometimes Cunningham would go home, retrieve a fashion photo, and bring it back to Kurdewan at the office just to prove he knew his stuff.

Boss trying to look like Karl. Working hard on the pages

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‘I had a separate monitor just for him to view his photos and a hard drive that was exclusively Bill’s hard drive. Nothing else went on it but Bill’s photos. I think we were up to 650,000 images that we did,’ Kurdewan said.

Working hard on the party page

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At age 83, Cunningham was introduced to digital photography. He was hesitant to test the technology, but he got used to it after learning he could view the photographs he shot right after taking them and didn’t have to constantly change the film in the camera. “He would ask, ‘Gigs? What the hell is that, John?’ and I would say ‘Don’t worry. It just means you can shoot a lot of photos.'”

Bill is in the building

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Cunningham rode his bike anywhere he could, sans helmet. Once, he came into work with a broken kneecap and bandaged head; he had been in a bicycle accident the day before. ‘I made him put on sunglasses so no one could see he had stitches in his head,’ Kurdewan said.

‘I’m painting pictures’ was Cunningham’s favorite phrase. ‘That’s why there were so many [photos] but each one meant something to him,’ Kurdewan said.

The boss going over the paper after looking at 1300 photos today

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Cunningham didn’t own a TV or go to the movies. ‘When I would go with him to The Met for an event, the Hollywood elite were very respectful, but he didn’t know who anyone was. I had to point out who they were, and he would laugh,’ Kurdewan said.

The boss

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Cunningham kept a collection of cards his friends sent him at his desk. Kurdewan said the photographer had a tight circle of friends and was much loved and respected by his fellow fashion photographers.

Some of the great cards that Bill gets from Friends

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The photojournalist disliked being the center of attention and tried to stay out of the public eye as much as possible. But after the debut of the documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York,’ he became a more mainstream figure. Before the film, ‘they just thought he was a crazy old guy in a blue coat,’ Kurdewan said.

The boss just came back from Central Park hat party. Looking to beat me up

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For Cunningham, work trumped everything, including a lunch break. Kurdewan would make the photographer leave The Times for fresh air and food. Cunningham often walked across the street for coffee and a butter roll or stopped at a street cart for a quick bite.

Bill loves his cupcakes

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‘He hated people that posed. He always liked to catch people that weren’t ready for the camera because that’s when they looked perfect to him,’ Kurdewan said. In fact, one of Cunningham’s favorite spreads, called ’23 Skidoo,’ featured women in the Flatiron District chasing after hats that flew off of their heads in the wind.

Thanks Francesca. Love this photo from Paris!!!!!!

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“I know more about fashion than I should, and I had the best teacher,” Kurdewan said of Cunningham. “Even when he was sick, he was still talking fashion. I would say ‘Bill, are you talking about the pleats?’ And he would say ‘Oh, yeah, the pleats on that dress!’ That was our little joke with the nurses.”

The boss has even got me wearing blue …

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Kurdewan says Cunningham taught him to never judge anyone. ‘He would always say to be nice. No matter what they’re into, or what their style is, or what they think, always be nice.’

‘His close friends knew how caring he was. He was very special. He was always polite, always asking about your mother, or your sister, or anyone in your family that mattered to you. He took them into his inner circle.’

Vintage photo of Bill & one of his best friends & artist Antonio

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