The late Bill Cunningham used to call The New York Times’ chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., “kid.” “As you can imagine, that’s not something that happens very often,” the 65-year-old admitted while addressing America’s most influential fashion figures (including Ralph Lauren, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Iris Apfel, and more) at Carnegie Hall. “In fact, it will probably never happen again.” The same can be said about a person like Cunningham.
Yesterday, the Times held a celebration for Cunningham, its longtime man “On the Street,” who not only captured New York’s best off-the-runway looks, but also perpetuated the ideas that fashion was more than just clothing, and that it’s often the individuals who make the styles so exciting.
Naturally the event was held at Carnegie Hall, a venue Cunningham called home for decades (he occupied one of the artist apartments). The corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue, where Cunningham would stand for hours in his blue workman’s jacket snapping his favorite subjects, was recently named “Bill Cunningham Corner,” and a replica of the street sign was placed on stage along with a bicycle, the only mode of transport Cunningham deemed acceptable.
Despite the grand setting, the afternoon was intimate, if not deeply personal. In addition to the likes of Anna Wintour and Michael Bloomberg speaking, Cunningham’s longtime assistant, John Kurdewan, and his niece, Trish Jarvis Simonson, shed light on what it was like to be in the photographer’s presence. The portrait painted was that of a human being with a genuine enthusiasm for his work and his subjects, and who was genuinely adored by those he encountered.
“Bill devoted his life to documenting style. But to him, style went far beyond clothes. Style was less about what people wore, and more about how they wore it,” Bloomberg said in his speech. “It was an expression of freedom, and it was the way people wore their clothes that Bill saw so many of the things that make our city great.”
Sandy Weill, the chairman of the board at Carnegie Hall, reminisced about Cunningham’s reaction to his apartment in the venue being converted to rehearsal space. Cunningham supported music education, and simply requested that Weill find him an identical space to live in somewhere in the city, right down to a shared tenant bathroom so cleaning would not be his responsibility. Weill obliged to the best of his ability, only coming up short on the bathroom detail (which is, incidentally, illegal for living quarters). The banker, who with his wife Joan held a dear relationship with the photographer, offered to clean the new bathroom himself.
“I think it was really great that he loved photographing people for their style, and not celebrities. He’s one of the few people who did that. He photographed people who are dressing for themselves are dressing from a very authentic place,” Visionaire’s Cecelia Dean told FU after the event. “They’re not working with a stylist, they’re just trying to express themselves, and he was one of the few people that captured that, and then shared it in The New York Times with millions of other people. That’s an amazing gift.”
“I know when there are going to be cameras, and I never forget that,” model and actress Hari Nef said about the onslaught of photographers outside of events now. “I feel there wouldn’t be so many cameras if there hadn’t been Bill’s camera to begin with.”