Bill Cunningham's Stage Was the Street
Being photographed by him was as powerful as Joan Rivers laughing at one of your jokes or Andy Warhol acting interested in anything you were saying.
One of New York City’s most iconic sights was that of Bill Cunningham riding his bicycle—slowly and carefully—around town while carrying photographic equipment so he could turn a lens on the flamboyant eccentricity that makes this city still sparkle in the wake of gentrification.
Pulses raced when people saw Bill aiming his camera at them, and one always got extra twinkly for him, knowing that the moment was an only-in-New-York type of validation. I only got into his page three times over the years, since my getups were a little too homemade and kitchen sink-y, even for him. But I was still always thrilled for Bill to shoot me, sensing it was a sexy encounter—as powerful as when Joan Rivers used to laugh at my jokes or Warhol acted interested in what I thought.
On Saturday, Bill’s death after a stroke at age 87 sent jolts of sadness through the worlds of fashion and journalism. With his New York Times pages, he pretty much pioneered the idea of paparazzo as artist and commentator on everyday (but exalted) chic. Bill shot celebrities, but he didn’t care about them nearly as much as he loved self-made characters who extravagantly paraded around the street (or events) in their own blazing ideas of style.
He’d shoot a homeboy in jeans shorts, a backwards patterned cap, and a backpack, and on the same page feature a man and woman, both bald, in matching pink vinyl skirts. He’d sometimes devote a column to a theme—women in black and white striped dresses; a page of coats, with women on the go contrasted with designer-clad models from runway shots. In the course of pursing these visuals, he’d sneak up on you and catch a quick shot, not wanting you to be too pose-y or desperate looking, and he’d always smile and make a quick remark, knowing that would engender good will and garner the best result.
Born in Boston, Bill Cunningham dropped out of Harvard, came to New York and eventually found himself in photography, doing street shots for the Tribune and Women’s Wear Daily. In 1978, his association with the New York Times began, and it became so major that in 2011, he became the subject of a documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, which got him a lot of acclaim from a whole new audience. But Bill was uncomfortable with the publicity, preferring to be up in people’s faces rather than have them up in his. On a scene filled with attention-seekers, his modesty was refreshing, and completely disarming when you realized that he wasn’t striving for anything except a good photo.
One of his favorite subjects for his “On The Street” column was the well-dressed dandy Patrick McDonald, who, through tears of grief, told me, “He ran me over 100 times, for over two decades. I was the only man that had a full page. He liked people that were different and he celebrated that. He appreciated the uniqueness of my look—the mixing of the patterns and the colors. The whole thing about me expressing myself as an individual without following a trend. Also, he had a fondness for hats, and I never go a day without a hat. I learned so much from Bill. I believe he was the smartest man in fashion—he knew every collection, he knew how things were made, he knew the history. He defied celebrities. He was interested in the clothes, the style, the color. Every day he loved his job and felt the best place for fashion was on the street. That was Bill’s stage.”
A genial mass of contradictions, Bill was thrust into a world full of gloss and posiness, but he was cheerful, not stuck up, and always called people “kid” or “young fella.” He was in the inner sanctum of the big-budget fashion world, but he wasn’t interested in money or fame, he just wanted to tirelessly do his job, while zooming in on the characters who elevate our ambience by making dressing up into an art form. He did finally go digital, but he kept his personal, intimate approach, while other photographers’ generic red carpet shots came off contrived and bloodless by comparison. With everyone on earth posting quickie photos on Instragram, set-up photo spreads started looking stale, but Bill’s pictures stayed fresh because they were sudden, surprising and full of vigor.
I am now officially the oldest New Yorker on a bike, and I’m heartbroken about that–only because I’ll miss the sight of Bill on his own two-wheeler and especially the presence of his photos and videos. They deftly captured a history of changing hemlines and attitudes, with an underlying enthusiasm and optimism that made fashion fun.
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