As the obituaries and eulogies will tell you, Bill Cunningham, who died in June, 2016, aged 87, was a great photographer.
For nearly 40 years, no reader’s experience of the Sunday edition of The New York Times was complete without seeing what he’d seen for his weekly “On the Street” collage of snaps of sidewalk fashion in Manhattan.
Since his death, the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street has been temporarily renamed “Bill Cunningham Corner” in his honour, and to mark the fact that it was one of his favorite hangouts for capturing images of what he called “stunners” — New Yorkers whose sharp dress and eccentric sense of style caught his eye.
That eye truly changed the way we see fashion; he took it from the runway to the street. As New York’s first lady (wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio), Chirlane McCray, said at the dedication ceremony, Cunningham “democratised the concept of beauty and style”.
All that is true, but Bill Cunningham was also a great cyclist. It was as integral to his art as the 35mm camera he slung over his shoulder when he rode around his Midtown haunts.
I knew his work as a photographer before I came to live in New York in 2010, but my appreciation of his method deepened with the documentary film that came out that year, “Bill Cunningham New York”. The movie is a delightful tribute to a very private man who lived in a cramped studio apartment above Carnegie Hall, sleeping on a cot bed surrounded by the filing cabinets in which he archived his work.
Before street styles photography became his mainstay, Cunningham covered the galas and balls of New York society. But he never took a seat or even accepted a drink; he was working and did not care to get too close to the machers and hostesses of the Upper East Side charity scene.
That was his ethic. He said he was happiest when his pictures didn’t run: “I’m really doing this for myself. I’m stealing people’s shadows, so I don’t feel as guilty when I don’t sell them.” He once owned a share of the fashion magazine Details, but often tore up the cheques he got, because, as he liked to say, “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty is the most expensive”.
A publicity still from the 2010 film shows Cunningham in his element. Stopped by the curb, still astride his battered roadster, he is photographing someone he’s seen on the sidewalk. In the movie, he disclosed that over the years, he’d had 27 bikes stolen.
Not a huge surprise. His bikes were always locked up on the street. After I started working at The Times, in 2013, I’d often see him at one of the racks on 40th Street outside the Times Building. I sometimes said, “Good morning, Bill,” as we parked, but often a quick glance and a quiet smile were enough because I knew that despite his unfailing friendliness and good manners, he was also a shy person who preferred to avoid intrusions on his privacy.
The paradox of his personal anti-style — black trainers, khaki trousers and always the blue serge jacket — was that it was such a style. I like to think that his decades in a French workman’s jacket must have been part of what France awarded him the Légion d’Honneur for in 2008. He shunned the spotlight, but when his fashion photography was recognised by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1993, he rode his bike on-stage to collect the award.
The bicycle was more than a tool or a prop. Whereas his subjects were always pedestrians, framed between building and curb, the bike gave him extra mobility. It also created a little barrier, like an artist’s easel, giving him the critical distance he needed. Just as he resisted the siren song of high society, he used his bicycle to signal his transience and apartness, that he was not a pavement paparazzo secretly seeking to be a centre of attention. The bike allowed him to be a true guerrilla documentarian: to come, observe, snap, and go.
Last year, I saw Bill in the cafeteria limping with a brace on one leg. I assumed it was the ravages of age, not from riding his bike — he was 86, after all. Not at all: he’d taken a spill and bust a kneecap. (He’d only agreed to take a staff job at The Times in the first place because he decided he needed health insurance after being hit by a truck in 1994.)
The scrapes and bruises, the stolen bikes, he took it in his stride. And he knew the value of cycling to the city. Asked what he thought of the city’s bike-share program when it launched in 2013, he said: “There are bikes everywhere and it’s perfect for the New Yorkers who have always been totally impatient. What I love, is to see them all on wheels, on their way to work in the morning in their business suits, the women in their office clothes … It has a very humorous and a very practical effect for New Yorkers.”
So Bill, to see biking in New York not just as a utilitarian but as an aesthetic practice.
The bikes he rode were always a part of his style. I wish I’d asked him where he got them, for he must have been a good customer of a well-stocked secondhand store. They were always sensible, utilitarian town bikes, with straight bars, metal fenders and not too many gears. The battered Schwinn was pretty much his trademark.
An American classic: old-fashioned, unpretentious, but beautiful.