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Painted Brain | Bill Cunningham, New York Photographer 1929-2016
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • July 20, 2016

Bill Cunningham, New York photographer 1929-2016

 Bill Cunningham passed away on June 25th, 2016.

As suggested by Hilton Als in the New Yorker, upon hearing of Bill’s death, I found myself focusing on the things Bill represented to me that might be missing from my life.  Bill was a New York street photographer, he shot fashion for longer than I’ve been alive.  Entirely utilitarian in his approach to life, he rode his bicycle everywhere, and still shot photos with a film camera, dressing in the same simple outfit day after day –  a plain blue French workman’s jacket and brown pants.

His favorite place to shoot was the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan. There’s a petition going around to rename it Bill Cunningham Corner.

He dressed the same for every occasion, closing not to partake in any festivities himself, refused even simple hors d’oeuvres at gala events.  Instantly recognizable and well-worn in the grooves of his habits, he chose to shoot pictures at events held in his honor.  He lived in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall for the most of his life, leading the life of an ascetic, cabinets filled with negatives his only furniture.  In the film, Bill Cunningham New York, the owners of Carnegie Hall attempt to relocate him to newer, more sumptuous living quarters.  The camera follows him through a doorway into a room open to the sky, complete with a gorgeous view of Central Park.  Cunningham merely scoffs at the potentially-distracting vista, and asks if there’s anything available at street level.

     What I admired about him most, and would most love to embody in my own life, is his tirelessly single-minded love of his own personal habits and predilections.

He loved the way people dressed themselves, how they reinterpreted or reacted to the top-down nature of the fashion industry in New York, London and Paris.  While he shot the fashion shows, what he cared for most was the people on the street and their idiosyncratic marvelousness (his favorite word).  For the past half dozen years, he created a weekly slideshow in which he extolled  the virtues of trends and themes in street fashion while exalting creative dressers and bemoaning the centrality of his beloved industry. He narrated these slideshows in a scratchy voice, backed by a klezmer clarinet, his curmudgeonly appreciation fairly bursting with decades of accumulated visual knowledge.  He would often contrast runway photos with many that he shot on the street, creating an ongoing dialogue between the two.  Anna Wintour of Vogue said it best, “Everyone dressed for Bill,”  he was a true New York institution.

 A former intern of mine once said that I reminded her of Bill Cunningham.  The fact that I found this such an honor could be an indication of how right she might be.  His fascination with the arcane, the depth of his knowledge in one small but infinitely rich area of the human animal’s wily ways, has always reminded me of Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist who also passed away quite recently.  Sometimes the pleasure that I feel simply experiencing life becomes so bright I feel I might explode, whether I’m riding through traffic on a bicycle or listening to the patients in my office describe the vividly personal worlds they inhabit.  I feel so privileged at times, so appreciative of these things, yet at other times, I’m brought down when I can’t quite feel it, due to the vagaries of moods or just bumping up against the quirks of external reality.  Bill Cunningham found his groove, his track, and he stayed in it, caring ostensibly for little else.  Always kind and wise and respectful of others, he was the ultimate insider who remained forever outside of the situation.  He was the loner everyone wanted to have around.

Rest in peace, Bill.

Dave Leon LCSW is the founder/director of Painted Brain and a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News

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