He captured our imaginations … on the street.
When I heard of the passing of Bill Cunningham this week, I felt I lost a friend, even though we never met. Through nearly 4 decades I have enjoyed his column in The New York Times named On The Street. He knew how to show us fashion in the real world, what people were really wearing opposed to the important runway shows that are a prevalent institution for clothing design in New York, Paris, Milan, London and all around the globe. You would find Bill at these events, he said they educate the eye, but his heart was truly on the street, doing what his instincts told him the world needed to see. He found paralleled fashion trends from the runway to the street, photographing views from his perspective. He loved the avant-garde and relished the classy dresser. Bill was always on the look out for the newest thing in fashion from head to toe.
“The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with, the point is … fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization. That’s what I think.”
Although he was a sought after hat maker / designer in his 20’s, labeled William J (fun to know Marilyn Monroe was one of his clients). Bill made his way into photography in his 30’s. He assisted then celebrity photographer Eddie Newton and didn’t see the value in celebrity imagery, his eyes saw the ‘real’ people standing near. He found a calling that stayed with him the rest of his life. In 1985 he started working with the original Details Magazine and publisher Annie Flanders, she gave him 100 pages at times. Extraordinary. Before that Bill was with Womens Wear Daily as his first photo editorial publication. It was the late 70’s when he started with The NY Times.
In the pages of The New York Times, Bill brought me to New York City without being there. I marveled in the chic he discovered and wondered how he was able to grab these shots, many in the crosswalks in upper Manhattan, but you could find his pictures from East Village and the lower end as well. His bikes were the mode of transportation. He had over 25 stolen over the years. His perspective on fashion set trends in current culture even though they were already really happening.
“The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been. Always will be.”
“I suppose, in a funny way, I’m a record keeper. More than a collector. I’m very aware of things not of value but of historical knowledge, I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.”
Bill lived above Carnegie Hall for many years in a small space until the residents were asked to leave their apartment studios. Many of them his closest friends and an iconic art community lived there including the wonderful Eddita Sherman whom he photographed as his muse in vintage costume spanning a 200 year period with his backdrop being buildings and architecture in Manhattan. These photos resulted in Facades, his only published book.
In 2008 Mr. Cunningham was honored by France’s L’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in Paris and awarded The Order of Arts and Letters. Some of his most poignant messages were delivered there in his acceptance speech including…
“I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.”
The streets of New York will never be the same without Bill Cunningham paying attention and recording what he needed to show us. He had our hearts. His blue jacket, big smile, photographs and several bikes through the years will forever be a part of New York fashion history. I personally will miss the prospect of getting a glance at him working or possibly Bill capturing a wild outfit on me. I am happy that his memoirs were made in the movie about him and he submitted to it. He was a shy, quiet man that led a simple existence with a great sense of humor. He taught us so much about humility, hard work and human spirit.
“It’s as true today as it ever was, he who seeks beauty, will find it.”
-written by Lori Patrick