|Photo courtesy of Lenzartis|
One of my heroes passed last week. Bill Cunningham first drew my attention when I saw a documentary about him. He was a tiny wisp of a man, always with a blue smock jacket, his bicycle, and his camera as he raced through the streets of midtown Manhattan photographing street fashions for his weekly spread in The New York Times. At night, he hovered and flitted through the summer garden parties of the rich and famous to document the gatherings in a second collection prominent in the paper’s Sunday Style section. At 87, he seemed indestructible, that he would go on for ages and ages even though he appeared delicate and child-like. No one does the kind of work Bill did. He was an artist living an ascetic life. His photography was everything to him. I admired his singular focus, his obsession with his art. Like most true artists, he would continue even if no one paid him. In fact, there were times in his career when he tore up his paychecks. He wanted to be unbiased in his approach to fashion and culture. To accept payment meant that he was beholden to someone, and that was not acceptable to the way Bill worked. He eventually took the job at the Times for the health insurance. The paper and its editors let Bill do what he did best, working with film long after most professional photographers had switched to digital. He eventually did make the change but on his own terms, continuing his painstaking process of editing hundreds of photographs down to the select few that appeared in the paper each week.
Of course, when I first saw the documentary, I started carrying a camera everywhere with me, but I quickly realized there was only one Bill Cunningham, and although I loved his pure artistry and focus, I did not have the eye, the quick shutter reflex, the diligence. I am more suited to word pictures. Besides, Los Angeles and its attention-seeking whores are far less photogenic and fashionable than their counterparts in New York. And as the band Missing Persons told us all those years ago, nobody walks in L.A. Bill Cunningham photographed a city, an attitude, an aesthetic unique to a time and place; it cannot be duplicated.
It is admirable and necessary what Bill did for forty years, traveling through the streets and lives of New Yorkers with a camera, documenting the color and beauty of fashion on the avenue. He caught it all: “fanny packs…Birkin bags…gingham shirts…florescent biker shorts,” according to his obituary in the paper for which he worked. He was an artist, social scientist, an anthropologist. In the documentary, we see his stuffed file cabinets in his monk-like cell above Carnegie Hall where he slept on a tiny cot and shared a communal bathroom with other residents. He delights in his simple breakfast at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street: a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee for three bucks. “Money is the cheapest thing,” he said when asked why he ripped up some of his paychecks. “Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
He literally amassed thousands of images in his archive. Hopefully, some museum will snap up that archive, organize it, and open it for scholars and the general public. These words from his obituary come closest to an artist’s credo: “When I’m photographing, I look for the personal style with which something is worn—sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera—to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”
I would like to think his spirit is still on the streets of Manhattan, capturing the beauty of another day in a springtime that will last an eternity. Godspeed, Bill.
To hear more about what it was like to work with Bill Cunningham on a daily basis, read this essay from his assistant.