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Bill Cunningham, 87, legendary Boston-born photographer

Bill Cunningham at the Marc Jacobs Spring 2014 fashion show in September 2013.
Bill Cunningham at the Marc Jacobs Spring 2014 fashion show in September 2013. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images/File

NEW YORK — Bill Cunningham, the Boston-born street-style photographer whose photo essays for The New York Times memorialized trends ranging from fanny packs to Birkin bags, gingham shirts, and fluorescent biker shorts, died Saturday in New York. He was 87.

He had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke. His death was confirmed by The New York Times.

In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham operated both as a dedicated chronicler of fashion and as an unlikely cultural anthropologist, one who used the changing dress habits of the people he photographed to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.

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At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle — he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen — for B-boys in low-slung jeans.

In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.

In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed him with the Legion d’Honneur. Back in New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him, as slight and bony-thin as ever, was installed in the window.

In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and profiled in The New Yorker, which described his columns On the Street and Evening Hours as the city’s unofficial yearbook, “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”

In 2010, a documentary film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.

Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him.

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He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.

Mr. Cunningham’s position as a perennial outsider among a set of consummate insiders was part of what made him uniquely well suited to The Times.

“His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met,” said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Times’s publisher and chairman. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”

Photographer Bill Cunningham attended the Rodarte Spring 2016 show during New York Fashion Week in September 2015
Photographer Bill Cunningham attended the Rodarte Spring 2016 show during New York Fashion Week in September 2015 Ben Gabbe/Getty Images/File

Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, said: “He was a hugely ethical journalist. And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion, and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”

Michele McNally, The Times’s director of photography, said: “Bill was an extraordinary man, his commitment and passion unparalleled, his gentleness and humility inspirational. Even though his talents were very well known, he preferred to be anonymous, something unachievable for such a superstar. I will miss him every day.”

Mr. Cunningham particularly loved eccentrics, whom he collected like precious seashells.

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Mr. Cunningham’s most frequent observation spot during the day was Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where he became as much a part of the scenery as Tiffany & Co. His camera clicked constantly as he spotted fashions and moved with gazellelike speed to record his subjects at just the right angle.

“Everyone knew to leave him alone when he saw a sneaker he liked or a dress that caught his eye,” said Harold Koda, the former curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

“Because if you were in the way of someone he wanted to photograph,” said Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper Magazine and a friend of Mr. Cunningham’s, “he would climb over you to get it. He was like a war photographer that way, except that what he was photographing were clothes.”

“When I’m photographing,” Mr. Cunningham once said, “I look for the personal style with which something is worn — sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera — to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”

William John Cunningham Jr. was born March 13, 1929, in Boston, the second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family.

In middle school, he used bits of material he got from a dime store to put together hats, one of which he gave to his mother to wear to the New York World’s Fair in 1939. “She never wore it,” Mr. Cunningham once said. “My family all thought I was a little nuts.”

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Bill Cunningham photographed Dita von Teese and Zac Posen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2014 Costume Institute Gala.
Bill Cunningham photographed Dita von Teese and Zac Posen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2014 Costume Institute Gala.Erin Baiano/New York Times/File

As a teenager, he got a part-time job at the department store Bonwit Teller, then received a scholarship to Harvard only to drop out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I was hopeless — but I was a visual person.”

With nothing to do in Boston and his parents pressuring him to find some direction, he moved to New York, where he took a room with an uncle, Tom Harrington, who had an ownership stake in an advertising agency.

“My family thought they could indoctrinate me in that business, that living with my uncle, it would brush off,” Mr. Cunningham said. “But it didn’t work. I had always been interested in fashion.”

So when Harrington issued his nephew an ultimatum — “quit making hats or get out of my apartment” — Mr. Cunningham chose the latter, relocating to East 52nd Street to a ground-floor apartment that doubled as a showroom for his fox-edged fedoras and zebra-stenciled toques.

To make extra money, Mr. Cunningham began freelancing a column in Women’s Wear Daily, then quit sometime in the early 1960s after getting into a feud with its publisher, John Fairchild, over who was a better designer: André Courrèges or Yves Saint Laurent.

Around 1967, he got his first camera and used it to take pictures of the “Summer of Love,” when he realized the action was out on the street. He started taking assignments for The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune, and he became a regular contributor to The Times in the late 1970s, though over the next two decades, he declined repeated efforts by his editors to take a staff position.

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“Once people own you,” he would say, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”

That changed in 1994 after Mr. Cunningham was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. Explaining why he had finally accepted the Times’s offer, he said, “It was a matter of health insurance.”

Mr. Cunningham also resisted the trends of celebrity dressing. He had seen actresses in their fishtail dresses preening and posing before the phalanxes of photographers at ceremonies like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. They were poised. They looked pretty. Yet he simply could not muster enthusiasm for them.

It wasn’t simply that he was nostalgic for another time, back when famous women like Lauren Bacall and Brooke Astor actually dressed themselves. That era might have held a certain appeal for him, but even when he was in his 70s and 80s, he still had plenty of subjects he loved to shoot.

One was Louise Doktor, an administrative assistant at a New York holding company who had a coat with four sleeves and a handbag made from a soccer ball. Another was Andre J., a bearded man with a taste for off-the-shoulder ’70s-inspired dresses.

“He had people who recurred in his columns,” Koda said. “Most of them were not famous. They were working people he was interested in. His thing was personal style.”

Mr. Cunningham put it this way in an essay he wrote for The Times in 2002: “Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”

Bill Cunningham during a cocktail hour in New York on Oct. 13, 2014.
Bill Cunningham during a cocktail hour in New York on Oct. 13, 2014.Amy Lombard/New York Times/File/NYT