Legendary Street Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham Honored With Medal of Excellence

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The New York Times lensman, 83, has captured Manhattan's trendsetters -- from elite galas to street style -- for five decades.

Legendary photographer Bill Cunningham, who has photographed charity galas, fashion shows, parties and Manhattan street scenes for five decades with The New York Times, was honored Tuesday for his achievements at the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence awards.

According to the event's chairman, designer Oscar de la Renta, "More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It's the total scope of fashion in the life of New York."

For once, the soft-spoken, unassuming Cunningham wore a dapper tuxedo instead of his ubiquitous signature French blue workwear jacket. But he also slung his trusty Nikon around his neck, at least during the cocktail hour.

He was surrounded by his rich and stylish friends including de la Renta and his wife, Annette, Sarah Jessica Parker and Hamish Bowles. WWD reports that more than 450 guests such as Sanford Weill, Mercedes Bass, Tina and Terry J. Lundgren, Agnes Gund, Kim Hastreiter and Christine and Stephen Schwarzman helped raise around $1.5 million for music education and community programs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

Cunningham, who was the reluctant subject of Richard Press and Philip Gefter's fascinating 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, sprinted to the stage with his omnipresent, enthusiastic grin. Given a standing ovation, he opened with "What can one possibly say? I mean, I’ve been struggling with it and I have made a few notes," while holding a a very, very long paper. “Everyone in this room, I mean, that’s why I’m here. It’s because of you."

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He praised his friends’ charitable efforts. “What I admire most about you is what you do for charities in New York. Nowhere else in the world do they know this," he said.

He also added: "There are cynics who say, ‘All you people go out to show off your fancy dresses and have parties.’ First off, I am not fond of photographing women who borrow dresses. I prefer parties where women spend their own money and wear their own dresses. ... When you spend your own money, you make a different choice."

Cunningham is indefatigable. At 83, he still hops on his bicycle early in the morning and races to Fifth Avenue to photograph interestingly dressed women on their way to work.

"Between 8:30 and 9:30 is fabulous,” he revealed. "Today women are dressing the insides of their heads as well as the outside. I come away thinking, 'This is unbelievable. It could not happen anywhere else in the world.'"

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