When William John Cunningham (1929–2016) rode off this mortal coil, fellow lensmen wore blue jackets at New York Fashion Week to honor his memory. More recently, friends and colleagues congregated for the opening of “Celebrating Bill Cunningham” at the New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West) where some of the beloved photographer’s images, personal effects and correspondences are on show through September 9. Astride his Schwinn bicycle, Mr. Cunningham was as recognizable as a yellow taxi on the streets of New York, wearing that trademark French workman’s blue jacket and a Nikon strapped around his neck. His images of the chic, eccentric or both – such as Isabella Blow, Carine Roitfeld, Mercedes Bass, Brooke Astor, and Carole Armitage – became an indelible chronicle of style and trends in his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns for the New York Times.
For all the attention his columns received however, Mr. Cunningham has never ascribed artistic merit to these images. His focus on fashion reportage and anthropology, consequently turned him into de facto arbiter and trend spotter, distinguished from today’s insufferably smug influencers by his knowledge of fashion, architecture, and art. Not surprisingly, two documentaries later (Richard Press’ “Bill Cunningham New York” and Mark Bozek’s “The Times of Bill”) and familiarity among everyone from social soiree habitués and fashion editors to drag queens and doormen did nothing to mitigate the air of enigma he maintained in his role of impartial observer.
An up-close view in the soon-to-be published posthumous memoir “Climbing Fashion” may remedy that with accounts of Mr. Cunningham’s youth in a lace curtain Irish neighborhood in Boston, arrival in New York in 1948, career as milliner “William J”, and finally becoming a fashion journalist. In the meantime, the New York Historical Society exhibition, curated by Debra Scmidt with assistance from John Kurdewan, contributions by Louise Doktor, and generous support from the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, provides a wonderful snapshot. At the opening reception, long time associate Mr. Kurdewan spoke fondly of the late photographer’s devotion to his work and indeed to the city itself.
Event Images Melanie Einzig: Philanthropist and artist Helen Appel, New York Historical Society’s Pam B Schafler, chairman, and Margi Hofer, vice president and museum director/ fashion icon and muse to Mr. Cunningham Tziporah Salamon, and Marjorie Stern/Joe Bird, New York Historical Society’s president and CEO Louise Mirrer, and John Kurdewan, production artist
Bill Cunningham photographing Tziporah Salamon, 2011 Courtesy of Antonio Alvarez