Bill Cunningham captured NYC street style by bike, camera slung around his neck, always at the ready. The legend, who sought to be “invisible” to capture people as they really are, was perhaps most visible himself when he whizzed on two wheels between the dizzying array of events and occasions that he chronicled in his On the Street and Evening Hours columns for The New York Times.
Like so many New Yorkers who love fashion and style as part of the cultural kaleidoscope of living in this city, I turned first to Cunningham’s features when the Sunday Times landed on my doorstep. And, as an everyday cyclist, I remember fondly a few encounters with the man himself.
Father of Street Photography
The beloved photographer, who died at 87 on Saturday after having suffered a stroke, and is mourned around the world, snapped New York City’s movers and shakers from the worlds of philanthropy, arts and politics. But life on New York City streets, revealed as weekly themes in his On the Street collage of photos, was his passion.
No paparazzo, no worshiper of “celebrities in free dresses,” Cunningham, a fiercely independent and idiosyncratic native Bostonian who started as a milliner, loved clothes. But it was how people wore them to express their individual styles that captured Cunningham’s imagination early in life and became the focus of his work across four decades at The Times.
He who seeks beauty will find it. – Bill Cunningham
“His subject was not what was manufactured to catch his eye, but what people wore to feel part of the group, or to stand out from the group, or to otherwise telegraph their place in the world — be it at a high-society charity ball or at a popular shopping street corner, no matter,” wrote Vanessa Friedman of The Times, in a Sunday tribute.
In his energetic pursuit, this father of street style photography was a cultural historian. Cunningham captured through the viewfinder of his 35-mm camera (on film until the end!) the evolution of contemporary society through the nuances of what New Yorkers wore, beginning with his first coverage of a massive “be in” in Central Park in the 1960s.
29 Bikes and Counting
Cunningham said his goal was to be “invisible” so that he could capture people as they are. He was genial and at ease in the world of the glitterati, but, steadfastly, never a part of it. High and low, Cunningham delighted in it all. The joy was palpable, whether he was observed shooting the Paris couture shows, firing his handheld flash at a grand dame at a charity gala or snapping denizens of downtown nightclubs.
Cunningham pedaled everywhere by bicycle in all kinds of weather. In an award-winning documentary about his life, released in 2010, Cunningham noted that he was on his 29th bike, the prior 28, all simple, upright models, having been stolen.
We Felt Like We Knew Him
We almost felt like we knew him, because, sure enough, his slim countenance, often clad in one of the blue French worker’s jackets that he favored, was easy to spot on the streets. I pulled up next to Cunningham at an intersection or two and sometimes observed him whizzing past on an avenue. Those sightings were always a thrill because Cunningham was such an NYC icon. Capturing an image of the fast-moving photographer was a prize in itself.
One of my favorites (top photo) was snapped in 2013 by photographer Dmitry Gudkov, whose oeuvre at the time was street portraiture of NYC cyclists. In a very meta moment Gudkov snapped Cunningham snapping him as Gudkov was at work during Summer Streets.
I remember encountering Cunningham as I rode up the Westside Greenway toward the George Washington Bridge on the day of SantaCon, the annual mass convening of people dressed as Santa Claus. Cunningham released his shutter in rapid fire, in every direction as people in red garb poured off the ferry from New Jersey. In the moment that it took me to pull my own camera from my jersey pocket to catch a photo of him, Cunningham was gone. On to the next opportunity.
Not surprisingly, Cunningham sometimes included people on bicycles in his street coverage: a whimsical example (above) is from a Central Park Conservancy luncheon.
Cunningham was dogged in tracking discoveries that appealed to his sensibility. That color. That collar. That clutch. I wasn’t surprised when I discovered him ducking beneath my elbow to get a shot of a woman’s shoes at a recent art exhibit.
I was photographed by Cunningham once at a charity event – it made me feel very special for that instant. The photo didn’t make it into The Times, and I joined the ranks of New Yorkers who wished to have been chosen for the final edit. A delightful behind-the-scenes look at Cunningham’s editing process (and more) is captured in the Instagram feed of John Kurdewan, a Times production artist who was Cunningham’s assistant.
Finding Beauty, Everywhere
Yesterday, The Times dedicated an On the Street column to photos of Cunningham through his career, in the front section of the paper where his obituary ran on the cover. Neither of his columns appeared in the Sunday Styles section. One wonders who could possibly replace Cunningham.
“He who seeks beauty will find it,” Cunningham observed at his induction as an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Ministry of Culture, perhaps a reference to Matthew 7:8. In his life time, Cunningham found that beauty and reflected it with remarkable taste, deep humility and the kind of joy and wonderment that prompts us as individuals to ponder, “What in my life could inspire similar passion?”
RIP, Bill Cunningham. You were one of a kind. And the mold has been broken.
Photos: From top, Dmitry Gudkov, The New York Times, Bill Cunningham, John Kurdewan