Beloved street style photographer Bill Cunningham rode his bicycle around New York City — often in a blue jacket, always with a camera slung around his neck — snapping shots of civilians and celebrities in stylish outfits until his death in 2016.
New York-based journalist Deborah Blumenthal honors Cunningham’s legacy in a new children’s book, “Polka Dot Parade,” out this week.
amNewYork caught up with the author about her interest in Cunningham’s work.
What inspired you to write a children’s book about Bill Cunningham?
I was inspired to think more about Bill after he died, and his work and the hole that was left. I thought it would lend itself to a picture book for children because of the positive spirit of his work. I’m attracted to people who love their jobs, and he worked constantly, and you could tell that he had a passion for what he did. He was very open to life. He was open to fun. He admired originality, creativity and self-expression, and I thought that was all so important in terms of take-aways for children.
Masha D’yans illustrated the book. What was your relationship with her like?
When you finish your manuscript, they send it to the illustrator, so you really work very independently. It’s like having a child and then giving it to someone to raise. I just thought she did magic with the subject. It’s whimsical, it’s colorful, it’s fun to look at. I’m thrilled with what she did with the book.
You mention in the author’s note that you met Bill Cunningham twice. What were those experiences like?
They were very brief because he was zooming around taking pictures. My husband [Ralph Blumenthal] spent his career at The New York Times so he knew Bill, and the first time we ran into him was at Lincoln Center. We chatted for maybe 30 seconds and he went off and was taking photographs.
The second time was at the New-York Historical Society for a party for my husband’s book “Stork Club” and Bill came to take pictures. So again, a very brief meeting. But he was working all the time. He wasn’t interested in stopping to chat. He was constantly looking for the perfect shot.
Are you a fashion fan yourself?
I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of fashion. I admire originality and interesting fashion. I’m a pretty conservative dresser, so he would certainly never take my picture. That’s OK. He just had such a passion for what he did. I think people like that are so fortunate that they don’t think of work as work, they think of it as fun and play and they can’t wait to get out there.
Is that how you feel about writing children’s books?
I do. I love it. I feel like I’m getting away with something.
In his own words (and photos)
When Bill Cunningham died in 2016 at the age of 87, he left behind a typewritten memoir, revealing details of a life dedicated to showcasing others. He recounts moving to New York from Boston in 1948 and becoming a hat maker under the name William J. before writing and ultimately photographing fashion and society for The New York Times. The book, “Fashion Climbing,” features a preface by Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic Hilton Als, along with Cunningham’s photos. It goes on sale Sept. 4 — just in time for New York Fashion Week.