“Members of the Sackler family rarely appear in public,” the New York Times wrote in a photo caption, on a picture of the sisters Kathe Sackler and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt. The Times was writing about how the states of New York and Massachusetts are suing the sisters and six other members of their pharmaceutical-industrialist family for their alleged roles in promoting, and profiting from, the mass abuse of opioid drugs—one step in the slow process by which the opioid epidemic is being gradually transformed in the public imagination from a vast and shapeless atrocity to a specific result of specific business decisions that specific people made because they wanted to make more money. The Sacklers kept their names and images away from the scandal for years, but nevertheless, when the moment came, the Times had the photo it needed.
How? The answer was in the photo credit: “Bill Cunningham/New York Times.”
It’s been nearly three years since the tireless blue-jacketed roving photographer died, at the age of 87, after working almost to the last on his twin portfolios of street fashion and society events. In his later years, people tried to immortalize him—with the French Legion of Honor, with Living Landmark status, with a documentary film—but now, after death, he’s achieved that result through his own labors.
Cunningham’s files of work for the Times, spanning decades, are irreplaceable material. And so from beyond the grave, he has kept contributing to the paper. When Karl Lagerfeld died in February of this year: “Mr. Lagerfeld in New York in 2002, when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s 40th awards gala.” When the former ambassador Richard Gardner died that same month: “Dr. Gardner, right, at a private party in New York in 1997 with the writer and human-rights activist Elie Wiesel, left, and Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general.” When the Times‘ California newsletter needed a photo for an item about Fred Korematsu: “Fred Korematsu, left, pictured in 2002.” When the Styles section profiled Agnes Gund this past November: “Ms. Gund with her daughter Catherine Gund in 2003.” When the Metropolitan Opera fired conductor James Levine, in March of last year: “Mr. Levine, right, in 1997, with Schuyler Chapin, a former Met general manager who was New York’s cultural affairs commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.” Over and over: Bill Cunningham/New York Times.
And yesterday—technically, in 2001—he’d caught the elusive Sacklers, grinning in formal black dresses, with a man in a tuxedo in the background. Hour after hour, night after night, year after year, he’d pedaled his bicycle around the city to turn passing instants into a permanent record. The Sacklers may have only rarely chosen to show their faces, but Cunningham’s camera was always waiting.