When I met Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham.jpg

One of the things that I just adore about travel is the unplanned and unexpected. And New York City is perfect for that.

I've joked with the man about wanting to meet Bill Cunningham or at least see him in action but it seemed like SUCH a ridiculous thing to hope for. It's not something that you can plan.

[Don't know who he is? Bill has published fashion photos in the New York Times since 1978. Each Sunday he has two columns - On the Street (street fashion) and Evening Hours (photographs of various parties from the week before).]

"I realized that you didn't know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy. I realized that the street was the missing ingredient."

We visited New York over spring break a few weeks ago. I travel there a couple of times a year for the museums and galleries and theater (once with the man and the girl and once on my own).

It was Easter Sunday and we were zooming in our cab from Murray Hill northwest across Manhattan to MOMA that morning. As members we're allowed in early before the hoards descend - Inventing Abstraction and some specific paintings with kids' commentaries were on the agenda.

"I suppose, in a funny way, I'm a record keeper. More than a collector. I'm very aware of things not of value but of historical knowledge." 

I'd forgotten about the Easter Parade as had our cab driver. A number of blocks of 5th Avenue were blocked off for foot traffic only so we hopped out of the cab at 57th and Park Avenue and started walking west towards MOMA.

As we crossed 5th Avenue out of the corner of my eye I spotted an old man with white hair and a blue jacket snapping photos. I knew INSTANTLY that it was Bill Cunningham. A little hyperventilation and I pulled out the camera and started taking photos. 

Cunningham Collage.jpg

I watched him work. And of course I stalked him a bit too. He's 84 people. 84 and still working. 84 and riding a bike all over Manhattan. The KING of New York street photography.

"I think fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they're horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It's mirroring exactly our times."

He staked out a circle about 10 feet in diameter and quickly moved around scanning the crowd. He had a calm, quiet, laser sharp focus. He's now gone digital and shoots a Nikon and what looks like a 50mm prime lens. I don't think anyone else recognized him.

And yes, I spoke to him too. He was so kind and sweet. Just a true gentleman.

"I go out every day. When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I'm on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me."

Want to know more about him?

A lovely New Yorker article about Bill.

And here is a trailer from the documentary Bill Cunningham New York . It's on Netflix.

An interview with the documentary director Richard Press talking about how he gained access.

And Bill himself on Bill Cunningham.

New York City is large. And busy. And loud. And gritty. And it moves fast. But it's also a small town. And friendly. It's a city where you can bump into Bill Cunningham at work and have a chat.