Take a handful of photographs from any sports file at UBC, the BC Sports Hall of Fame, or those adorning the walls of sport-related venues and you will be guaranteed to find attached the name Bill Cunningham. At UBC and the BC Sports Hall of Fame archives alone, if one were to go through the myriad of photo prints within the respective collections of each, the majority would have the familiar blue stamp of Bill Cunningham on the back.
Cunningham’s photos embrace sports, news, events, celebrities—he was the most prolific and perhaps best known photographer of his kind in the province. Yet it is said he never punched a clock nor charged for overtime. He lived for his work.
He took action shots, individual, group – whenever there was a photo opportunity, Bill Cunningham would be there front and centre capturing all elements of life and human emotion. He seemed ubiquitous, yet this quiet, selfless man was always welcome where photographs were expected. Modest and well-respected, the throng of competing photographers always stood back to give him space as he took charge.
At UBC, SFU, the BC Sports Hall of Fame, and many other sports associations, there would be sparse photo collections if it were not for Cunningham’s generous donation of time and arduous work. In addition, some of his photos—sport or otherwise—could be considered ”iconic” and are still widely viewed.
Cunningham, who graduated from Vancouver College in 1928, originally intended to be a priest but began writing sports items. In 1939, he was hired by the Vancouver Sun and later joined the Vancouver Province in 1944. Despite officially retiring from the Province in 1973, Cunningham continued to keep his lens clicking for professional and amateur sports until passing away in 1993 at the age of 84. That translates to over fifty years of photography, an estimated 65,000 negatives, all of which were stored in the basement of his West Vancouver home.
As a photographer Cunningham grew to know the City of Vancouver like few others. For decades he could be found dutifully working his craft at each home game of the Lions, Canucks, and Whitecaps, every BC Boys High School Basketball Tournament, as well as virtually all UBC sporting events. He created a profound visual history of Vancouver sports.
Cunningham survived by a son and five daughters, worked at innumerable award events and has been honoured many times himself, including the BC Sports Hall of Fame’s W.A.C. Bennett Award and the UBC Big Block Club, whose sweater he wore faithfully.
“A great guy,” recalled BC Sports Hall of Famer Buzz Moore. “He was the life and breath of the downtown papers.”
Written and researched by Fred Hume for the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
W.A.C. Bennett Award
WAC Bennett Award