Saturday, April 21, 2012
When you think of eccentric artists, who comes to mind? Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Vincent Van Gogh.
One name is missing from your list. Possibly one of the most genius artists who exists in the world of photography AND fashion, snapping photos of clothes is Bill Cunningham. I would argue that he is by far one of the most revolutionary and important artists/photographers of the 20th/21st century. The man is in his mid-eighties and still rides around the city of New York on a bicycle taking photographs with a non-digital camera (that is a camera that still takes film that one gets developed). He lives alone; he isn't married nor has he ever been in a significant romantic relationship. Probably a lot of people think he is 'gay', but to me Bill is Bill. He defies conventional definitions and cannot be boxed in. His sexuality isn't something Bill Cunningham thinks about often or really has time for. He isn't sad at never having started a family, nor does he seem regretful about his life. He lives his life doing what he loves and seems content.
After watching the documentary about his life, made one year ago, in 2011, Bill Cunningham in my new hero. It is 85 minutes that you will not regret. Bill Cunningham New York. Do yourself a favor. Watch it. Now! (PS: It's on Netflix!) He lives by his own rules and not by other people's expectations. Growing up, his Catholic family did not really want him entering into the fashion world because it isn't a man's territory. However, rather than being a banker or businessman like other men in the 50's and 60's, he took pictures of clothes. He is one of the last true artists of our generation. He has defied being conventional and mundane by being unique and reaching outside of the box. Labels defy him, they bounce off like bullets.
For the last 40 to 50 years, he has been riding around NYC on his bike taking pictures of street fashion, high society galas, and runway shows. He has been to Paris many times, and he is on a first name basis with many socialites and designers. However, Bill Cunningham is everything but pretentious. He is so humble, that it is almost hard to believe how modest he is. He gets hundreds of invitations to functions that are typically reserved for the socially elite and well known celebrities around New York City. He, however, chooses the ones where he is inspired by the charity and finds something intriguing about their cause and work. What's more is that he doesn't sup at these events. It would be anyone's dream to sit down and eat caviar and sip expensive wine while rubbing elbows with New York's rich and reputable. However, Bill Cunningham refrains from touching anything, even sitting, at these events. He is there to photograph clothes and make honest reflections and societal commentary, through his pictures, about the story that clothes and people tell. He has upper crust NY eating out of the palm of his hand, yet he prefers to eat at the corner deli.
He doesn't buy the most expensive equipment. In fact, he uses the same camera he has for years and often reuses materials instead of buying something expensive and new. He just doesn't see a point to spending money frivolously. Bill Cunningham also lives in a very modest apartment above Carnegie Hall, or at least he did at the shooting of the film. As he went apartment hunting in nicer, loftier, more expensive looking places, Bill looked rather embarrassed. Bill also has a very small work studio. One would think that for a man with his prestige and credentials that he'd have a whole floor of a building to use as his work space. Bill Cunningham is not a man of pretension and artifice. Though, he admits in the film the irony of how he lives his life since it contrasts with the fact that he loves to photograph clothing.
He has worked with the New York Times since 1978 and still has a regularly and popularly read section. His career began with the Chicago Tribune, and during that time he also worked with Women's Wear Daily. However, despite being the toast of the town for his photos, he stopped with work with Women's Wear because they were doing things with his work that he didn't approve of. For example, Bill has always taken photos of street fashion. He especially likes to profile regular non-model types wearing runway clothing. In Women's Wear, they took the opportunity to make fun of and mock the regular women wearing designer looks. They also would use Bill's pictures to point out the 'worst' and 'best' dressed. Bill Cunningham, however, would not have this. To him, no one is 'better' or 'worse' because a person wears or doesn't wear something in particular. He takes pictures of the elite and mundane people as a way to equate them. What people wear on a day-to-day basis is just as artful as what the runways premieres. To Bill Cunningham, all of fashion is art.
What inspires me the most about this man is that he is completely humble. Every designer around the globe knows his name. He can get into any fashion show and rub elbows with the crème de la crème of the fashion world. However, to Bill, it's just life, c'est la vie. It doesn't get to his head. He likes going to fashion shows and being allowed to photograph because, to him, it's fun. This is his livelihood. He still goes to church every Sunday. He admits in the film that he goes to church 'to hear music' since he wouldn't have time for music otherwise. Photography and fashion is what he eats, sleeps, and breathes, literally!
I think the biggest compliment ever would be if I were walking around Manhattan and I see Bill sidle up next to me in his blue smock and bicycle snapping shots of what I'm wearing. That would be the greatest honor of life, just because the very act of acknowledging my clothes as art would acknowledge me as a person. Bill Cunningham's art is empowering to people of every race, class, and culture. He has captured NY history through clothes. He has photographed major fashion trends from the hippified, bohemian sixties to disco seventies to flashdance/volumized eighties to grunge/alternative nineties. Bill Cunningham's art has transcended time. He has captured movements and styles that will be forever remembered. He takes the notion of whether everyday people create fashion as art or fashion instructs all of us to wear what we do.
One quote from the movie really struck a chord with me. Bill Cunningham said, "The wider world that sees fashion sometimes as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous. The point is, in fact, that fashion, you know it is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you could do away with it; it would be like doing away with civilization."
I never really thought of fashion in this way. We all deal with what life throws at us through clothing. It reflects every mood and event in our life. In a world seemingly out of order, our clothes are one thing we can always have control over. More inspiring is that we are all empowered, as artists, through our clothes. It is our way to show who we think we are to the world. We can create a character for ourselves, we can reinvent ourselves, we tell others what to think through our clothing. For Bill Cunningham, he truly enjoys the art of taking photos of clothes because it is the clothes that speak about who we are as people and individuals. He doesn't do it to be famous or noticed. He shies away from public recognition. He acts just like someone's fun-loving grandpa or eccentric uncle, so down to earth.
He can exist within every level of society, multiple worlds. This is a gift that most people never attain. He can slip in and out of high society functions. He is the only photographer who people like Anna Wintour will stop and pose for. He was good friends with Lady Astor. He is one of the last bastions of old artist New York, as he lived in Carnegie Hall with Editta Sherman (photographer/dancer) and Toni 'Suzette' Cimino (artist), the last artistes to reside above Carnegie Hall. Bill Cunningham is a legend and an inspiration to artists everywhere. He lives for his art, and makes his work passion. He is unassuming and lives the same way an NYU film student would live (penny to penny). For year he didn't want to get paid the full worth of his photos when he shot for Details magazine. To Bill, money ruins everything and as an artist, without it, you are more powerful.
Bill Cunningham is like a infusion of Mister Rogers mixed with The Mad Hatter. By the way, he was a milliner, hatmaker; he used to design and make his own hats. I would seriously give my left eye to meet this man and shake his hand. Through his art, he is a revolutionary, a rogue, a visionary. He defies the labels of class through his photos and equates all levels of NY society through their clothing. A street punk, street performer, and art student are just as important fixtures of NY society as any Rockefeller or Carnegie. Through his photos, he blurs the line between fashion, art, and sociology/history. He is a true maverick. I can proudly say that Bill Cunningham is my new hero. In an age where heroes are dead, I have found one worth looking up to and aspiring to be.
=The Film site
=Bill Cunningham's NY Times column
=NY Times article on Bill