Streets ahead
Remembering New York street photographer Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham. Source

New Yorkers love nothing more than a story about themselves. When Bill Cunningham: New York – a documentary about the much-loved photographer – debuted at New York’s Film Forum cinema over two weeks in March 2011, queues for admittance stretched along the sidewalk. Some of those waiting to see the film had, no doubt, been photographed by Cunningham. This was the New York fashion equivalent of a personal blessing from the Pope, though Cunningham, who attended Mass every week, would not have stood for such a comparison. He died on Saturday, at the age of 87, having lived a life of both unusual passion and rare humility.

Film Forum is on West Houston St, in Manhattan, at the edge of Greenwich Village. To the west of the cinema are the Hudson River and its piers, formerly catwalks for the city’s outsiders: street sex workers, hustlers, teenage runaways. Immediately south-east lie the cobblestoned streets of SoHo, where the luxury fashion brand Prada now has its flagship store inside a red-brick commercial loft that was built, in 1882, on commission from the Astor family. The building’s original ground floor tenants were Rogers, Peet and Co., a ready-to-wear department store, while the upper storeys were occupied by milliners.

Cunningham, too, began his career as a milliner, making hats under the label name William J for an array of customers including Marilyn Monroe. But film stars didn’t impress Cunningham, nor was he drawn to the models who stalk the present-day streets of SoHo like giraffes, swaying aloft on their elongated limbs. Instead, Cunningham dedicated himself to fashion as worn by amateur dressers, rich or poor, young and old, wildly eccentric or perfectly turned out. He was as happy to photograph an Astor – Bill Cunningham: New York attested to his friendship with the late philanthropist and socialite, Brooke Astor – as he was any number of New York “kids” (as he affectionately referred to them) whose clothes attested to their chutzpah.

On The Street, Cunningham’s photographic column for the New York Times – one of two that he filed each week – began in 1978. It was a record of the city’s ever-changing moods as expressed through clothing, and not only clothing, but bags, flags, badges, flowers: all phenomena of popular expression. Like a meteorologist collecting weekly data, Cunningham insisted on the primacy of observation over interpretation. “It isn’t really what I think,” he said, of the trends he documented in On The Street. “It’s what I see.”

He never asked people to pose, preferring to catch them as they moved, often unawares. The joyful restlessness of On The Street matched the spirit of Cunningham himself, who was once memorably described by fashion editor John Fairchild as “a pixie on a bicycle”. He rode everywhere, wore the same blue workman’s jacket (which he bought in Paris, where it was worn by street sweepers) season in and season out, and slept on a cot bed surrounded by filing cabinets that were crammed with his photographic archives. It was as if his overwhelming enthusiasm for visual beauty could only be kept in check by a self-imposed asceticism.

Along with On The Street, Cunningham photographed the runway collections in New York, London and Paris – side-on rather than front-on, the better to capture the movement of the clothes – and the New York society circuit of charity balls and galas for his other Times column. “If you cover the three things, you have the full picture of what people are wearing,” he wrote in 2002, in a rare commentary on his work. But he remained forever cautious of the compromises, ethical and otherwise, that often characterised work in the professional fashion industry. “If you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he observed in the documentary about him. “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

During the years I lived in New York, between 2008 and 2011, I only spotted Cunningham once, on a sunny afternoon, as he bicycled down 5th Avenue near the intersection of West 23rd St. That’s right near the Flatiron Building, which, like many buildings in New York, has stood witness to all kinds of human enterprise, from magazine publishing to organised crime. New York attracts a disproportionate percentage of the world’s most ruthlessly ambitious people, but Cunningham embodied a different kind of New York: curious rather than cynical, generous instead of mean. To see him in person – blue jacket, black sneakers, camera slung around his neck – was to feel blessed by the city’s better spirit. Vale, Bill Cunningham.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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