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The Legacy of Bill Cunningham: Quantified Yet Still Immeasurable

Curators’ Corner

The Legacy of Bill Cunningham: Quantified Yet Still Immeasurable

Earlier this summer, esteemed New York Times fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham died from a stroke at age 87, leaving what PetaPixel aptly described as a “gaping hole in the photo world.” Famous for his quirky habits (he never owned a TV, only traveled by bike, and ate the same $3 breakfast at Stage Star Deli every day), his award-winning photography, and his hallmark humility, Cunningham was beloved by the global fashion community.

About a month after Cunningham’s death, the New York Post reported his lifetime work to be estimated at $1 million:

“The papers [from the Manhattan Surrogates Court] also reveal that Cunningham’s net worth was $4 million, a tidy fortune amassed by a man who lived like a monk, cycling around the city to snap his pictures and staying in budget hotels when he traveled.”

Cunningham’s $1 million worth of photo rights comprise a quarter of the photographer’s entire estate, which includes bank accounts and insurance policies. That’s a pretty spectacular feat considering how difficult it is to make a living in photography.

Though this much is clear, officials are struggling to identify the appropriate beneficiary as Cunningham left behind two wills, the most recent granting his niece, Patricia Simonson, his legacy. The remaining assets are to be allotted to four nephews and Louise Doktor, a Manhattan secretary also known as his “muse.”

As for the unquantifiable legacy Cunningham left behind, nothing—not even the life-size mannequin Bergdorf Goodman installed in 2009 in his honor—can measure his presence, which will be missed by millions.

In 2009, Cunningham was designated a living landmark in the city, becoming as much an icon in the fashion world as the subjects he so looked forward to photographing.

Bill Cunningham