June 25, 2016

The wonderful "street-style" fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has died.

So sad. Sad, even though he was quite old — 87. What a loss.
In 2009, he was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy and profiled in The New Yorker, which described his columns On the Street and Evening Hours as the city’s unofficial yearbook, “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”
He was a very unusual man...
He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had until very recently for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
I highly recommend the documentary about him, "Bill Cunningham New York."

UPDATE: We re-watched the documentary just now. Very moving. "If you seek beauty, you will find it."

AND: Things in the documentary that I'm still thinking about the next morning:

1. All the bicycling. Bicycling in New York City, even at night, without a light (just wearing a reflective vest), even at the age of 80 and beyond.

2. His claim that he's interested in the clothes themselves and not the people, and his lack of any personal social or sex life. Even as he attended parties and other people tried to include him, he kept a distance.

3. People speculated that he must have come from wealth, because who else would willingly resist the wealthy, glamorous, famous, beautiful people who opened their arms to him, while he maintained his stance as the photographer, dressed — despite his love of clothing — in a cheap street-cleaner's jacket. Whatever the occasion was for the people he photographed, including the most formal galas, the occasion was the same for him: photography.

4. His family was, in fact, middle class, and he professed great love for his parents and saw himself as a combination of his father — who was very social and gregarious — and his mother — who, as he summarized it, was Catholic.

5. We learn that he goes to church every week, though he seems to want to say that he goes for the purpose of listening to the music. Then, late in the movie, he's confronted with the question of his sexuality. He deflects it: "You want to know if I'm gay?" That's a question he won't answer or he believes he's answered by saying that he has never had sex with anyone. (He insists that there was no time for that. He was working.) Did he abstain from sex because he was gay but, because of religion, believed that he needed to refrain from having gay sex? He was very supportive of gay people in his photojournalism, and we don't see him asked that question. But the next question is about religion, something about whether he really believes it. He's overcome with emotion and puts his head in his hands for a long time.

ADDED: 2 things from Meade:

1. That line I quoted from the movie — "If you seek beauty, you will find it" —  corresponds to what Jesus said: "Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you/For every one that asketh, receiveth: and he that seeketh, findeth: and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened."

2. The explanation of the mystery of Bill Cunningham could be: He was a combination of his father and mother. The rich sociability of his father had to fit within the religion of his mother. He found a way to experience the attractions of materialism, wealth, and the physical, sexual world while keeping himself clear of all of the sins. Even gluttony: at the galas, he refused any of the food and drink (even a glass of water), he had no kitchen in his living quarters (even after he was moved out of the kitchenless studio at Carnegie Hall, he had the kitchen appliances and cabinets removed from the new apartment), he ate very cheap food from restaurants (and not enough to be anything but skinny), and he claimed not to care at all about food.


victoria said...

Great documentary. A totally lovely man, very courtly.
Lived a long and fruitful life. Full of his kind of excitement.

He will be missed.

Vicki from Pasadena

Etienne said...
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Saint Croix said...

added to the queue

thanks, Althouse!

rcocean said...

A lucky man did what he wanted with his life.

As Frank Sinatra would have sang, "I did it my way".

Earnest Prole said...

A great documentary and a visionary photographer.

Lewis Wetzel said...

I'm never sad when old people die. I'm like, 'get out of the way, geezer! I am the future and I want your stuff!'

Paddy O said...

ripping up checks? Selfish. He could have been very generous with his money.

MayBee said...

Yes! Love the documentary!
Sorry to hear the news.

rehajm said...

The last dignified man at NYT. Talented. I care little for couture or fashion but I will dearly miss his fashion reporting. The movie portrayed his life as a conflict of homosexuality and devout catholicism, but his burden was that of a hoarder.

rehajm said...

He used to camp out on 5th down from Tiffany's. I didn't pass there often but saw him there frequently with his bike.

Crazy Jane said...

Big loss for the NYT. He was admired by the fashionistas but never one of them. His Sunday photo essays were enormously influential, but anyone who traveled to Manhattan hoping to see what he found was frustrated to encounter the dominant local schlubbery. An unusual person to be such an essential cog in high fashion manufactory.

madAsHell said...

A lucky man did what he wanted with his life.

Who will be the pallbearers?

Maybe he has friends, but at 87 years of age friends are few, and most of them dead.

Kevin said...

"ripping up checks? Selfish. He could have been very generous with his money."

OMG. Really? He's supposed to collect something he doesn't value so he can give it to people who value it more? Because? Civic duty? Your morality?

Why should you, or anyone else, impose that burden on him?

Oh wait, I know. Because others have imposed it on you.

The container that housed your organically-grown peas? Useless to you. You'd like to just be rid of it. But you have a moral obligation to find it a home, in the correct recycling bin, to ensure it goes to a place where it will be "put to good use" by people who value it more than you.

You're no longer working for yourself. You're working for the greater good, for society, for "the planet". You're working for a rock. You're working for a rock? Like a pebble? One you put in your pocket and carry around with you and when people ask, "Why did you do that?", you pull out the pebble, show it to them, and say, because I did it for little Charlie here?

That's stupid. You're doing it because others told you to do it and you get social feedback based on whether you do it or not. You are conditioned to do it by those who have told you you're not being conditioned.

Now what was Cunningham saying about liberty and freedom again?

Ann Althouse said...

"ripping up checks? Selfish. He could have been very generous with his money."

He was generous: to Details.

He cared about the magazine and his own independence. It was therefore perfect to decline the payment offered. It was perfect of Details to offer the money too, even expecting it to be declined. Why should some third party charity be involved? Let Details give money to charity in the name of Bill Cunningham if it detects a moral shortfall.

Ann Althouse said...

"His Sunday photo essays were enormously influential, but anyone who traveled to Manhattan hoping to see what he found was frustrated to encounter the dominant local schlubbery."

The movie shows that and has Cunningham talking about it. Most people walk around looking conventional and wearing their clothes in a utilitarian, inconspicuous way (as Cunningham himself did in the extreme). But there are a few people who really express themselves through clothes. He waits for them and knows how to catch it.

Similarly, he sat through fashion shows letting many things pass by unphotographed. We see his judgmental face. His gift was in spotting what was genuinely expressive and interesting.

Ron said...

"An artist lives under the vampire of his talent" -- Nietzsche.

That's what I thought of when I read this post.

Earnest Prole said...

One way to read his emotions at that moment is that he is profoundly saddened (or angered) to have his religiosity and sexuality defined for him, in simplistic terms he does not agree with, so late in his life.

Kevin said...

"He cared about the magazine and his own independence."

Or, as he said in his own words, he just didn't value money very highly. Why must we find an explanation of his actions (including the possible actions of third parties on his behalf) which fits into our own moral framework?

To put it another way, why are we uncomfortable with people who lead lives worthy of the highest public acclaim, but which clearly deviate from the value system we all know to be "correct"?

Fernandinande said...

"If you seek beauty, you will find it"

Confirmation bias.

Phil 314 said...

Just watched. Extraordinary.

Known Unknown said...
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