Witnessing Bill Cunningham at work was something of a magical moment. His mere presence at an event made it “the event”. Countless times I’ve heard people, when asked about how the event was last night, enthusiastically respond with “Bill Cunningham was there!” I’ve also been in literally 100′s of famed peoples’ offices where a prominently placed frame on the wall contained a copy of the time they appeared in Mr. Cunningham’s ubiquitous column. The endorsement of Mr. Cunningham’s shutter was, for the well-heeled of New York’s societal inner circle, a seal of approval. His taking your photo meant that you mattered. In such rarified air as that breathed day in & day out by the attendees at these events, Mr. Cunningham’s endorsement was akin to a badge of honor.
Yet to Mr. Cunningham, none of this mattered. As we learned in watching “Bill Cunningham New York”, the 2010 biopic chronicling his life, he was unmoved by any of it in the way that most would be tempted. He was never consumed by the society in which he maneuvered. He was oddly, yet beautifully, above it all. Not in a snobby manner, but in a pure appreciation of the spectacle of it all & what good they were doing. He didn’t care about celebrity, or social station, or the number of commas in one’s checkbook… what moved him was what good the person was doing & for whom they were using their station. Despite his access, he felt his job in all of this was one of observation & promotion, not participation.
Four weeks ago, at the 38th Annual American Image Awards, I was lucky enough to have Mr. Cunningham arrive at our front door. His approaching one’s event was the dream of any event organizer. He approached me & said, “I want to take 4 pictures. One of Iris (Apfel), one of another honoree, & two of people from the charity.” I got him through the crowd to Iris. He shot his 4 shots, asked me to shout their names into his left ear (his good one) as he wrote their names in his trademark top spiral notebook, & off he went to the sidewalk to unlock his bike & pedal off to his next event of the evening. As he left, he said, “I’ve got four more events to get to tonight!” Then he was off. Little did I know that my last moment interacting with the legend had just ended.
Several years ago, I attended a Bibhu Mohapatra show & was thrilled beyond belief at my seat. I was seated directly behind none other than Mr. Cunningham. It was his first season shooting digital, prior to that season, he always preferred good old fashioned film (I asked him once on 39th Street if he shot film or digital & he said “Film!” in the most disgusted tone you can imagine). I can’t remember a single garment that walked the runway, as I was transfixed by looking at the viewing screen on the back of his camera! Witnessing what he saw as he saw it… once in a lifetime to a fashion junkie like myself!
He was every bit as major, if not more major a celebrity as those he photographed, yet he was utterly confused as to why. I was once in the bathroom at Lincoln Center during NYFW when in walked Mr. Cunningham. I nodded hello, he nodded back & then looked away, asking me to be careful of his bag, which he sat on the counter as he walked in. In walked Bergdorf Goodman’s David Hoey. David proceeded to tell Mr. Cunningham that he just saw his movie. I’ll never forget Mr. Cunningham’s reply: “I hate that $%#*ing film! It’s destroyed my ability to work! Everywhere I go people want to take pictures of me. I mean, who the hell would want a picture of me?” Charmingly… he simply didn’t get it.
As I left the tents a few minutes later, on Columbus Avenue, hiding behind a trash can was none other than Mr. Cunningham in his trademark blue French Sanitation Worker’s uniform jacket, taking images of NYFW attendees as they left the shows. About 50 feet behind Mr. Cunningham were 8 or 9 street style photographers taking pictures of him, taking pictures of his subjects. I suddenly got his point.
Mr. Cunningham was an original in every sense of the word imaginable. We will each have our own moment when we realize the void left by his absence. I already know when I will feel his absence. It will be in the middle of August when I prepare to send out invitations to the next round of NYFW shows I am producing. The need to prepare printed out, old-fashioned invitations will not be there as Mr. Cunningham was the only person for whom we still did that. While the process was always a distraction during such a busy time, it was a distraction that my team gladly welcomed & would welcome forever if only it were still necessary.
The void left by Mr. Cunningham’s passing will never come close to being filled. An American treasure has been lost.
-R. Scott French