Bill Cunningham, the pioneer of street-style photography, wrote a secret memoir before his death in June 2016. Now, that memoir is being published by Penguin and expected to hit shelves in September.
The New York Times compared the discovery to a “major archaeological revelation,” reporting that Cunningham called the memoir “Fashion Climbing”. It’s not evident when the photographer wrote the manuscript, but “multiple drafts of certain sections also found in the archive suggest he revised it.” The title refers to the early years of his career, working his way up the ladder of the fashion world, a world his traditional Catholic family didn’t understand.
Cunningham was known for being a few things: the inventor of street-style photography and a very humble man. In the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, Anna Wintour said, “We all get dressed for Bill.” Hilton Als, New Yorker staff writer and theater critic, wrote the introduction to the memoir, describing the book as having a “Breakfast at Tiffany’s flavor.”
The Times reports that there is not much about the photographer’s personal life in the memoir, rather it documents his career in fashion, starting from wearing his sisters’ dresses at age 4. In an early chapter of the manuscript, Cunningham wrote this:
“It’s a crime families don’t understand how their children are oriented, and point them along their natural way. My poor family was probably scared to death by all these crazy ideas I had, and so they fought my direction every inch of the way.”
The fact that Cunningham left behind a memoir is pretty surprising considering that he was intensely private. Even the documentary of which he was a subject didn’t delve too deeply into his personal life, though it showed him burst into tears at one point while talking about his romantic life. Cunningham documented the style and lives of New Yorkers in a way that, in spite of the prevalence of street-style photography, isn’t quite seen in the same manner today. Whether it was his coverage of what people were wearing in blizzards or his roundups of daisy-influenced fashion, there was a very relatable humanity to even the most luxurious of people.
“Bill was a true original,” Christopher Richards, the Penguin editor who acquired the memoir at auction, said to the Times. “For me, this book is really for those of us who came to New York with a dream and saw New York City as a real oasis of creativity and freedom, a place to be who we want to be. It’s a really beautiful story about a young, artistic man finding his way in the city, in a particular kind of bohemian world that doesn’t quite exist anymore.”