Like many I was saddened last month to hear of New York Times fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham’s death at age 87. His column was fodder for my daydreams of being a NYC girl about town. To honor his life, I settled in one night with a glass of wine and the documentary about him, Bill Cunningham New York. I had expected to be inspired to a closet revamp but inspiration took a deeper curve. It was not his style that he is remembered for, he wore a bright blue utilitarian painter smock every day, but his simplicity, his impartiality and most of all his joy of life.
Cunningham lived in an artist studio above Carnegie Hall for 40 years. He had no kitchen or bathroom but shared a bathroom down the hall. His studio was overstuffed with file cabinets containing negatives of his work. He slept on a piece of plywood propped up on milk crates and old books. It was stark contrast to the New York elite he took photos of each night at museum galas and political fundraisers. He rode a bike wherever he went. He ate the same $3 coffee and breakfast sandwich each morning and did not agree to actual employment by the NY Times until the mid 90’s when he was hit by a car and needed health insurance. Explaining why it took him so long he replied “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
His infatuation with photographing people on the street started in the 1960’s when he was asked to photograph hippies who had gathered in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park for the Times. He was dazzled by the colorful costumes and said from then on, he spent any extra time photographing people on the street. When he would tell these stories he shares his absolute delight in humanity. He would photograph models at fashion shows, philanthropists for the society column and people on the street but treated them all equally. “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. Look at the clothes, the cut, the silhouette, the color. It’s the clothes. Not the celebrity and not the spectacle.” he clarified.
Yet in all this, it was his joy of life that most charmed all he came in contact with. He called his work, pleasure, not work. It was rare he that he would let others bestow recognition upon him yet in 2008 he was awarded the Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. During the awards ceremony he admitted that he didn’t work, he only knew how to have fun every day. His life and the inspiration I find in it can be summed up by his philosophy of life,
He who seeks beauty will find it.
I found his story challenging. He lived around such excess but was content to live simply. He treated those below and above him equally. He found joy in all he did. I want to embody these qualities as he did. To be content with what I have. To have a sense of fairness and equality about me. And most of all to live with more joy. Thank you Mr Cunnningham for your indelible spirit. Your life was blessing to those who knew you but even to those who never met you.