A couple of weeks ago I attended the Jazz Age party on Governor’s Island, expecting to see Bill Cunningham, a bit of a celebrity around these blogging parts and one of this blog’s patron saints.
Unfortunately Bill wasn’t at the party and I thought maybe I’ll see him at the party in August or he was a bit under the weather from all of his nights out. I did once see the man, fast asleep on the ferry over to Governor’s Island. His life seemed pretty intense and non stop.
Then I read a couple of days ago that he had suffered a stroke and then I heard he passed away and I cried. As I documented several times on this blog, I met him on a couple of different occasions. I wouldn’t call us friends. I was a huge fan of his. When I met him at the 1920s party on Governor’s Island, he was incredibly engrossed in his work but when I met him again in Boston about a year ago and he was very kind and we had a good conversation. He seemed amazed about how Boston had changed since the way it had been when he was growing up. He even took my photo.
I mentioned before that I loved Bill’s photos even before I knew who he was. I grew up in New York and my parents always read the New York Times. I remember seeing his photos in the Times and thinking that he captured the city the way it actually was. A lot of people try to capture New York but they get its glossy version. Bill captured the real version of it with every single kind of person that walks the street. It didn’t occur to me until later that he was capturing fashion. I just remembered thinking that he was a person who really captured what was going on in New York.
I heard in a documentary once that everyone has a vision of New York in their mind, even if it is made up. Its different when you actually grow up there, the way I did. You think the idealized version is kind of off or wrong, but Bill captured it the way it really was.
In 2010, I watched the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” for the first time. I subsequently watched it once a week for about three years. I was mesmerized by what they showed Bill doing and his funny relationship with the people he worked with at the Times, especially John Kurdewan, his layout man at the Times. In the movie, it shows the hilarious interactions between John and Bill and their obvious affection for each other. I particularly love when Bill tells John to stop his antics and to make the page right for the way he wants to do it. It was a nice moment between people who had an obvious affection for each other. I even followed “Work for Bill C,” John’s Instagram page about working for Bill. The pictures up there were out of control adorable, with Bill getting cupcakes with cameras on them from John and other sweet moments between them.
In the documentary, you also got to know Bill Cunningham the person. In the middle of the documentary, Bill said “money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom are the most expensive.” Bill never touched money and he believed that to take money was to be a slave to someone else. It took me a while to catch on to his message, but it is one that I have tried to live my by.
Bill also says that everyone thinks fashion is frivolous but to do away with fashion would be like doing away with civilization. He also said that fashion is the armor that we use to survive everyday life. Recently, my relationship with fashion and clothes has changed and I can see the wisdom of this quote, about how we use clothes to shield ourselves against the indignities of everyday life. It also changes how we relate to different people. When we’re dressed well, we stand up taller and people notice us. When we aren’t, people don’t notice us as much. How we all look matters a lot, a lot more than we actually want to acknowledge.
Now with camera photos and digital photography, daily life is broadcast all the time but Bill Cunningham was the first to do that and in a way, he did it in the best way too.
Goodbye Mr. Cunningham. You will be sorely missed!!!!