"The best fashion show is definitely on the street - always has been and always will be," states New York Times reporter and photographer Bill Cunningham at the very beginning of the documentary that in 2010 Richard Press dedicated to him.
The streets of New York and the ordinary people or the rare birds of paradise cruising them will definitely miss this unique character, a humble man with an encouraging smile, a childish glee, a genuine passion for fashion and a wonderful eye for details. Bill Cunningham died yesterday in Manhattan, after having been recently hospitalized for a stroke. He was 87.
Born in March 1929, William J. Cunningham moved to New York in the late '40s where he first worked in advertising. He then focused on millinery, making whimsical hats under the name "William J" (to avoid embarrassment to his conservative Bostonian family…).
He closed his business when he was drafted and, after serving in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York and started writing for the Chicago Tribune. While working at the Tribune, shooting wonderful fashion reportages for Details magazine (in which he visually juxtaposed art and fashion with the skills of a precise historian) and contributing to Women's Wear Daily, he began taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York.
A chance photograph of Greta Garbo published in a group of pictures in the Times in December 1978 spawned a regular column.
In more recent times, his column "On the Street" started including the photographer's audio commentary. Always sounding enthusiastic and happy, Cunningham's voice usually made you smile and find a new reason to get passionate about fashion.
Two years ago an exhibition at the New York Historical Society entitled "Façades" (a title inspired by his 1978 eponymous book) focused on Cunningham's pictures from 1968-1976.
For this project he captured women in period costumes posing against historical or modern buildings in New York, among them also the late fellow photographer Editta Sherman, who lived like him in the Carnegie Hall building.
Every day, clad in a blue worker's jacket, Cunningham cycled around the streets of New York taking pictures of wealthy fashionistas or ordinary passers-by with a unique twist in their styles and documented their attires, spotting trends (for his "On the Street" column), or of people at society parties (only fundraisers for charitable and philanthropic causes; for his "Evening Hours" column) with an energy, passion, optimism and enthusiasm that the new generation of street photographers - with huge and powerful digital cameras but often with very little soul - desperately lacks.
Cunningham became a legend, keeping his integrity: he never accepted food (not even a glass of water) at the society parties he went to (to avoid compromising and preserve his objectivity) and some of his quotes about money should be the mottos of those supposedly objective critics, journalists and bloggers shipped all over the world by fashion companies to report about their Cruise collections ("Money's the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive"; "Once people own you, they can tell you what to do. So don't let 'em" and "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid!").
He even refused to do a retrospective of his pictures at the Met Museum thinking that would have been a diversion and he never watched Press's documentary about him.
Cunningham received the L'Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2008 and the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence in 2012.
When he received the former he stated: "I'm not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the lines, the colours - that's everything. It's the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle."
The photographer recently made a brief appearance in Andrew Rossi's "The First Monday in May": in the documentary he stops to chat with Andrew Bolton on the opening night of "China: Through the Looking Glass" at the Met, and reminds him of Diana Vreeland's contribution to the Costume Institute, "When you think how they allowed you this, poor Mrs Vreeland, they killed her with the exhibition, keeping it downstairs".
Cunningham had a contagiously amazing joie de vivre and considered invisibility as a gift.
In a fashion world constantly focused on money and not much else, he chose to focus on how people use clothes to express their personal style: in what he called "the age of the cookie cutter sameness", he looked indeed for daring and rare individuals who didn't looked as if they had been stamped out of ten million other people.
When he accepted the Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in France, Cunningham closed his speech with a wonderful sentence - "He who seeks beauty will find it". His life has been a great lesson, a constant search for beauty, honesty and lack of pretense: if there is anything as oxymoronic as a humble legend, he was definitely one and will be truly and greatly missed.
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