Philip Gefter

Bill Cunningham

When the photographer Bill Cunningham died in June, the outpouring was appropriate for someone who had stature equal to that of a national treasure: Front-page headlines for almost a week; tributes in every major magazine; remembrances flooding Facebook and Instagram; and culminating in Mayor De Blasio of New York City designating the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street “Bill Cunningham Way.” Bill was 87 years old and, for me, his death was not what I would call a tragedy. He worked right up to the last days of his life, which is exactly what he wanted, and his exit was characteristically gracious and swift, absent any pain and suffering. Still, it left me very sad. A beacon of goodness and joy has departed the planet.

Bill’s combination of passion, rigor, purity, innocence, and originality set a unique standard. People who knew him were touched by his dedication and joy; those who followed his columns in The New York Times relied on his sense of style and his unwavering eye; and audiences of strangers around the world-- introduced to him through the film, Bill Cunningham New York, which my husband, Richard Press, directed and which I produced-- were consistently inspired by him: Not only was his joy infectious, but here was a man who figured out how to spend his days doing something he genuinely loved, on his own terms. There is no greater wisdom than that.

Of course, Bill would have been embarrassed to hear that he set a standard for anything, and his humility only made him that much more appealing. In 2008, he was made an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters of the Ministry of Culture in France. The French Minister himself explained that Bill didn’t think he deserved such an honor. “And that’s precisely why he deserves it,” he said, with a wry smile. Bill, the reluctant recipient of such official high acknowledgment in France, choked up with emotion at the conclusion of his acceptance speech, saying: “He who seeks beauty will find it.” Indeed.

Bill Cunningham was a delightful presence -- affable, charming, never missing a beat, always ready for a laugh, yet not one to stray far from the work at hand. He would dismiss anyone who called him a serious photographer by claiming to be nothing but a fraud. In fact, for almost fifty years he used the camera as a “pen,” as he once described it, a tool for reporting his two columns in The New York Times: “On the Street” was a mosaic of pictures of people he photographed on the streets of New York on a weekly basis to identify evolving currents in fashion. He had an uncanny eye for spotting what was new about how people were dressing. His other weekly column, “Evening Hours,” was a separate mosaic of pictures taken at charity balls and cultural events where women were dressed formally for the evening and where money was raised for worthy cultural institutions or social services.

Each week, “On the Street” focused on a single trend before anyone else had identified it-- whether ankle boots, a spontaneous revival of the Edwardian style for men, or neck and wrist tattoos in place of necklaces and bracelets. Bill’s ideas did not come from fashion magazines or newsroom editors. On the contrary, magazines took their cues from what they saw in Bill’s columns. Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue for almost thirty years, said: “We all get dressed for Bill,” adding that if he wasn’t at a designer’s show she had attended, she considered herself in the wrong place.

Bill was a fashion world deity, but it would have embarrassed him to hear that, too. “Bill took a vow of fashion,” says my husband, Richard, meaning that he followed his passion with the devotion of a monk. Bill focused on the essence of style, not the commerce of the fashion industry. He knew the history of fashion by era, by century. He was able to spot the influence of earlier designers on a current trend with the expertise of a scholar.

Bill’s formula for covering fashion was this: First, he attended the fashion shows to see what the designers were presenting on the runway. “Paris educates the eye,” Bill always said, explaining that he went twice a year for the fashion shows (while, equally, being nourished by the architecture, the statuary, and the gardens). Secondly, he photographed women in formal dress at evening events to see them wearing couture in its intended environment; and, third, he spent every single day shooting what people were wearing on the streets.

While he used the camera to document these three arenas, the photographic image was not what he cared about— other than as a forensic kind of evidence; He cared about his subject, clothes-- how they were being worn and the way style evolved with the times. His love of fabric, line, cut, shape and, ultimately, original style propelled him day in and day out to marvel at what people were wearing. That said, he followed the news of the world religiously and could be astute in pointing out the way a fashion trend reflected the economic or political climate of an era.

For someone so obsessed with fashion, though, Bill was the least materialistic person I knew. He lived like a monk, blithely conducting his life with an absence of possessions. For many years, he lived in a tiny apartment at the Carnegie Hall studios that looked like a derelict storage facility. There was no furniture and the bathroom was in the hallway. Instead, the file cabinets that composed his picture archive were stacked side by side with barely enough room for his single mattress on a flat board. When Carnegie Hall turned the studios into a school, he relocated to a comfortable studio apartment overlooking Central Park South. Immediately he had the kitchen counters and appliances removed to make room for his files. “Who needs a kitchen and bath,” he said.

Breakfast for Bill was a quick in and out at a local deli and dinner was often Chinese takeout before he launched into an evening's slate of parties. He traveled from one event to another on his bicycle-- his only form of transportation. He had pared everything in his life down to the essential structure of his work, including the signature blue jacket he wore, a Parisian street sweeper's smock he would purchase on semi-annual trips to Paris. "They're practical," he explained, with fabric that withstood his cameras rubbing against it and multiple pockets that could hold his rolls of film.

I first got to know Bill when I arrived at The Times, in 1992. He would slip furtively past the picture desk, where I worked as an editor, into the photo lab to have his pictures developed. I liked to ask him what he was seeing on the street and he was happy to tell me. Then, one day, in 1994, he handed me a picture he had taken of me several nights before at the opening of an Avedon show at the Whitney. On the back he had written a beautiful note the length of the print, saying he was glad to see me partaking of the cultural life of New York, and encouraging me to be open to the world of art, music, theater and dance. Over the years, we established a meaningful rapport. About five years ago, on a bitter cold winter morning, Bill walked into the newsroom and told me the most hilarious story. He had covered a benefit at the Frick museum the night before. It had snowed and the temperature was in the low teens. After staying late, he walked to the corner of Fifth Avenue where he had chained his bicycle to a pole. Because of the weather, the lock had frozen and he couldn’t get it open. No one was around and he started to get nervous. “Then, I had a brainstorm,” he said. “I urinated on the lock.” He laughed his most gleeful laugh. “It worked.” Necessity is the mother of invention, and, as I often liked to say, Bill didn’t drop out of Harvard for no reason. In other words, his keen intelligence was always at play.

That night, I had a dream about Bill in which he whispered in my ear that, in actuality, he was Bugs Bunny. In the dream, he shed his signature “Bill-Cunningham- blue” French street sweeper’s jacket and revealed his true identity underneath, in the same way that Clark Kent transformed into Superman. I was thrilled that my unconscious produced such a dream, yet it was Bill’s ingenious way of getting himself out of a pickle that inspired it. I had always thought of Bill with a kind of Bugs Bunny canniness, along with a good-natured, wisecracking insouciance. He could be everywhere at once and disappear before you knew he was gone.

That said, Bill Cunningham’s daunting accomplishment was that he transformed an obsession with clothes into an exacting chronicle of the intersection of fashion and society in New York over half a century. It's not what he set out to do when he picked up a camera in the mid-1960s. Still, given his affinity for beauty, strict work ethic, passion for clothes, and scholarly knowledge of the history of fashion, what he leaves in his trail is pure cultural anthropology. And, for me, personally, a lingering memory of his rare effervescence.

-- Philip Gefter, 2016