Those who do not believe in a higher power may certainly be questioning the how-can-it-bes and the what-ifs of the great beyond this year as another of the our best and brightest bulbs has been unscrewed and permanently removed from the marquee.
Bill Cunningham, The New York Times’s venerated street fashion photographer, died Saturday in Manhattan after suffering a stroke. He was 87 and worked until the day he passed.
Like many who don’t occupy the isle of Manhattan, I came to know Cunningham’s work after watching (and re-watching) the 2010 documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” which showcased the sprightly white haired man with the Cheshire smile who hid in plain sight behind a lens in a blue French workman’s jacket, khaki pants and black shoes.
He took snaps on the street all day with a 35-millimeter film camera and shot galas and gatherings of the rich and famous at night — famously refusing to eat or drink or even take a sip of their water.
Cunningham did not want to attend his own movie’s premiere but then changed his mind for the opportunity to shoot the attendees. He received the designation of a living landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy in 2008. And, after more than 40 years working for The Times, he managed to amass the greatest singular documentation of the city’s (the world’s?) fashion of the late 20th and early 21st century.
His photo collages, all centered around the theme of the day, from polka dots, to tutus to fanny packs to the rise and fall of jean waists, acted as the living mosaic of the city, a color wheel constantly reminding people that every day is someone’s special occasion. Every day is worth getting dressed for.
I never saw Cunningham riding on his bicycle from Harlem through Midtown, or shooting on the East Side. I never caught him during his quick daily morning nosh at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, but, as one long-time New Yorker once told me, you don’t find Bill Cunningham, he finds you.
And so it shall be when his archive is picked apart, organized, and re-formed — a museum wing-worthy trove of sideways glances and knowing grins and downturned eyes and bottomless paint water gray puddles that could be traversed (or no) by a singular leap will rise in his absence. But something, a tiny heartbeat of the city that was, also departed this weekend. The man who recognized thrift store fashion as Haute couture but sometimes ignored the works of the scions of his day, is gone.
There’s a lot of advice out there for people in early, mid- and (sometimes) at the end of their careers. Gurus, books, seminars — and of course the misguided epiphanies of bosses who fancy themselves as mentors, try. But nobody, NOBODY taught me what it’s like to love what they do like Bill Cunningham.
So then, these are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from the man who for decades lived on a cot in the shadow of rows of cabinets full of negatives among un-cashed checks and cherished images of days gone by, even if that day was yesterday:
“Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.” Maybe Cunningham’s most famous or at least oft-repeated quote. There are precious few, maybe down to a handful, in this world who believe that money is cheap. But if anyone knew this, it was the man who attended upwards of two dozen gala events per week. It’s not that he didn’t admire or abhor the rich — he was always among them and contemporaries with some — it’s that he knew that money, like status, like titles, is all just made up stuff. It’s about the person. He was loyal to the end to those he called friend. And, though he was marked by some as intensely private, it was that he simply was exposed to so many that he knew better — and let so few in as a result. Money is needed, a little bit for food, a little bit for shelter, a little bit for film, a little bit for healthcare. But when it becomes the goal, you might as well pack up and call it good. He didn’t admire the rich, he admired the few: the gracious, the talented, the deserving.
Follow your passion but know that money won’t always follow: We tend to fill those who are just getting started with the false hope that if they do something they like, the money will take care of itself. It certainly does not. Cunningham could have gotten rich, yes. Book publishers were clamoring to print his collection and he is a ghost writing biographer’s dream, so, in his case — the money could have come but he refused it (see: above.) But he was also in the vast minority. Most of us have something we like, something that helps us to breathe, something to take away the drudgery of spreadsheets and meetings and passive aggressive e-mails with your boss or someone important cc’d on it. We all need a little outlet. But know this: you’re not going to make any money off it. Or if you do, you surely aren’t going to get rich. Be truly OK with that. And if you are not, you haven’t found the right thing.
Keep moving. Keep going: Cunningham failed working for his uncle’s advertising firm. He went broke as a hat designer. He quit Women’s Wear Daily after a skirmish with a publisher. He broke hundreds of cameras. He had more than 30 bikes stolen. He was even hit by a car. But he kept moving. He kept going. Every single person in this world no matter how smart or talented or funny or confident — is going to get their ass kicked. It’s about how you get up. And it’s about knowing that the next day holds new promise and inspiration.
Don’t idolize your idols: Cunningham had designers he admired and those he loved on a personal level, but he was never afraid to criticize. And his way of doing that was ignoring them. “We all get dressed for Bill,” Anna Wintour, herself perhaps the only remaining living fashion icon in NY, has famously said. Her other sentiment, perhaps the lesser known but no less important: “…Or he ignores you, which is death.” In other words, even the greats have a propensity to swing and miss. But that’s a heck of a lot better than never swinging at all. Cunningham knew this and everyday it was reflected in his work.
Stay open-minded: Things change, you need to keep changing too. Cunningham till his dying day was capturing life. You never heard him get nostalgic about suits from the ‘50s or mini-dresses from the ‘60s or whatever-it-was that happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He would reference them, yes, but it was utilitarian, not whimsical. Life, as he knew it, was always in motion. He loved those on the fringe. He loved those who cared enough to see what could be and not what was. He was not a complainer and spared no moment for it. People like Cunningham don’t have time to look back, ruminate, hold grudges. They are constantly turning. “He was incredibly open-minded about fashion,” said Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor. “To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”
Show and tell the truth: Baquet also said Cunningham was “a hugely ethical journalist.” He didn’t cloud his shots with judgement. He didn’t fancy himself a great photographer. Prolific, sure, but not one of the best in the world. He shot what was on his life’s canvas, that’s it. As urban and dirty and sad and inspiring and life-affirming and tragic as it is — he did not use filters, metaphorically or physically. “I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit,” he once said.
Bill Cunningham wasn’t an advice-giver. He was an observer, and maybe the most professional one we have come to know in the last half-century. He loved what he did and he did it every day. It’s a shame that that’s become such a unique trait there are only a handful we can think of who live it — and when we lose one, it becomes a national tragedy.