...and other stories from people in his life
Bill Cunningham was more than a photographer – he was a social anthropologist documenting the interplay between fashion, the street, and high society over the course of four decades for The New York Times. Outfitted in his signature blue worker’s jacket, Cunningham hopped on his trusted bicycle and sped around the city, hopping off to photograph New York’s most stylish figures from all walks of life before returning to his humble apartment at Carnegie Hall.
His love of glamour, style, and grace had existed since the early days of his childhood, where he fawned over women’s hats during Sunday church services. In 1948, at the age of 19, he dropped out of Harvard University after just two months and moved to New York City to give life in fashion a go. He launched a line of hats under the name ‘William J’, and by the 1950s his clientele included no less than Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Bouvier, and Katherine Hepburn.
Although Cunningham lived a spare, simple life, his creations were anything but. His love of grandeur and glamour are present everywhere in his work — from his exquisite hats to Façades, an early art project he did with Editta Sherman, also known as the ‘Duchess of Carnegie Hall’. From 1968 to 1976, they created a series of photographs featuring Editta and other models wearing vintage costumes posing in front of Manhattan landmarks dating to the same period.
When Façades was completed, Cunningham gave a selection of 88 gelatin silver prints from the series to the New-York Historical Society, launching a lifelong relationship with the organisation that spanned the next 40 years. After his death, his friends began donating Cunningham’s personal effects to the Society, giving us a rare glimpse into the life of a man who maintained an incredible balance between the public and private spheres.
In honour of one of fashion’s greatest documentarians, the New-York Historical Society will present Celebrating Bill Cunningham, an exhibition of objects and rare ephemera, along with a selection of work from Façades, from June 8. Here, we speak with exhibition curator Debra Schmidt Bach, as well as John Kurdewan, Cunningham’s collaborator at The New York Times, artist Paul Caranicas, and filmmaker James Crump, to illuminate the life of the man behind the camera.
DEBRA SCHMIDT BACH
Debra Schmidt Bach is the curator of decorative arts at the New-York Historical Society and a former Tiffany & Co. Foundation Research Fellow in American Silver.
“Bill came to New York and wanted to create hats. He was active as a milliner from 1948 through the early 60s. His hats were incredibly creative, very stylish, and sometimes very outrageous. They made huge statements. He had a great eye for putting together a range of materials that might not seem like they would go together.
Bill closed his millinery studio in part because American women were not wearing hats as much and losing interest in them. He began working as a journalist based in New York for a number of different publications including Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune. He began covering fashion, travelling to Europe and covering shows there, and he became very interested in photographing what he was seeing in the shows and on the street.
He mentioned this to David Montgomery, an American portrait photographer that he had met while he was in London, and it was David who recommended that he start photographing what he was seeing. A few months after that, he gave Bill Cunningham a camera: his first professional camera, which will be in the exhibition, and told him to use it as a notebook to record what he was seeing. That’s how it all began.
Bill was truly an artist. It just flowed in and out of him. His day didn’t necessarily begin or end at a particular time because what he saw energised and captivated him. If he saw something that piqued his interest that was why he did the kind of work he did. There were many different sides to fashion and he captured it all — and sometimes I think he must have done it in the same roll.”
John Kurdewan is a New York Times staff artist and longtime collaborator of Bill Cunningham.
“For Bill, it wasn’t work, it was a passion and he expressed it through his photos. It was a love for people who were able to create something out of nothing. He was living through it. He weaved in and out of their lives and left an impact on them.
It wasn’t about a celebrity status for him because he didn’t know who many of the younger generation were. He would ask, ‘Who was that? Was that Madonna?’ and I would say, ‘No, that was Miley Cyrus.’ Then he would ask, ‘Well, who’s she? Where is Madonna?’ I would tell him, ‘She just walked by us,’ and he would go, ‘Miss Madonna!’ When he called your name everyone would stop and turn.
Bill was a rare bird, as Antonio Lopez would call him. They gave him that name when they were hanging out in the ‘70s. Bill would just observe and only speak when he thought something was good. That’s what he taught you: how to look. Every week he would try to create something unique. Bill was always trying to have people stop and look at things.
For his 85th birthday we bought him a new bike, which will be on view at the Historical Society. We gave him that and it took him a while to get used to. It was only after his 29th bike got stolen that he had to suck it up and ride the new one, and it was all because he didn’t want to get a scratch on it. I was like, “Oh Christ, Bill, just ride the damn thing!”
I would talk to him like you would talk to your dearest friend. I used a lot of curse words, and to hear him curse was classic – with a Boston accent! I would teach him typical male signals and he would say, ‘Is that what that means? I can’t believe I had to ask these questions at this age.’ We just had a good old time. Everyday Bill and I would sit down and have coffee and be like two old washer women. We had a great time.”
Paul Caranicas is an artist who has exhibited his paintings worldwide since 1971. He is the executor of the Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, and the author of Antonio’s People (Thames & Hudson, 2004).
“I knew Bill for 30 years. He was like a monk, but in Bill’s case, his religion was fashion. He was very devoted, very human, and very giving when you were with him. Bill loved Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos. They did a lot together in the 60s when times were a lot freer. They travelled together to Cape Cod and the Hamptons. Bill tells a story in the film Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco about how he was their chauffeur: he got the car and drove them around.
I met Bill in Paris through Antonio and Juan. I remember once around 1974 or 75, Bill came to the apartment on Rue du Rennes. We were living with Jerry Hall at the time. The apartment had two big living rooms in the front and Antonio worked in one and I worked in the other. I think Antonio was drawing Jerry for some magazine.
Bill came over and went into the bathroom. Then he came out completely naked and he ran across the living room. People were streaking in those days and he did it. In a way, it was so out of character and yet it was so in character. He just streaked us and blew our minds, then went back and got dressed. He was a prankster. He has a great sense of humour and loved joking around.
That day we did the interview at the New York Times for the film, Bill was so stressed that day. It was a Friday, which was his deadline. He made us wait two hours, which I undersand was because he had a doctor’s appointment for his eyes – but then he gave it his all. It was great. It was the last interview Bill ever gave.”
“Bill was not driven by objects at all. When he came into the interview, he had a Cup-a-Soup, and it was probably the same Cup-a-Soup that he had every day for 40 years. He wore the same clothes. He wasn’t about being flash or possession of things” – James Crump
“We did that interview with Bill at The New York Times because he had been forced to vacate his apartment at Carnegie Hall: he was one of the last holdouts. Bill was so generous in the interview, and I don’t think he was necessarily that way in talking about his life or his friends.
He was so open in the interview and wanted to share so much because I think he felt the end was near. Bill was so animated and so emotional talking about Antonio and Juan, two friends he absolutely loved. His stories of life in the 70s were vibrant, describing how people were doing it for adventure, for fun, to be creative and original. It wasn’t driven by money or the need to be a celebrity. It was something more passionate, intimate, and life enhancing.
In the film he cites French artist Toulouse-Lautrec. I think he identified with Toulouse-Lautrec because his work was about capturing something of the moment, of the characters of life, of the reflections of society, its habits, and the freak shows that happen in the urban context. I think he was amused by the diversity of the street and the crazy characters. He was drawn to it, much like Toulouse-Lautrec and street photographers like Garry Winogrand. He had a wicked sense of humour and a very critical eye for what was happening, not just fashion but for the life of the street.
Bill was not driven by objects at all. When he came into the interview, he had a Cup-a-Soup, and it was probably the same Cup-a-Soup that he had every day for 40 years. He wore the same clothes. He had a uniform. He wasn’t about being flash or possession of ‘things’. He’s like a pure character and maybe that’s why we were all drawn to him. We knew that he had no ulterior motive. He had an appreciation for the diversity of all walks of life, especially in places like New York and Paris, places that he deeply loved.”
Celebrating Bill Cunningham runs from June 8 - September 9 at the New-York Historical Society.