CELEBRATING BILL CUNNINGHAM, A TRUE DOCUMENTARIAN OF NEW YORK LIFE
There is no doubt that New York Times photographer and journalist Bill Cunningham was a New York staple. Before he passed away in 2016, Cunningham was a fixture on the streets of Manhattan, photographing street fashion. I remember seeing him peddling his bicycle along Fifth Avenue and at art events in Chelsea and beyond. He always made me smile, hunched over, camera in hand willing to go the extra mile for the best shot. This is why it makes sense for the New York Historical Society to have an exhibition titled, Celebrating Bill Cunningham because he was and is worth celebrating.
The New York Historical Society has brought together an amalgamation of objects and ephemera from their collection and items loaned from Cunningham’s family and friends, offering an intimate look at the artist’s life, from the 1960s until his death. There are letters, photographs, scrapbooks, and even the last bicycle he used, along with one of his instantly recognizable blue smock jackets. A series of hats from his William J. millinery collection—hats designed and made by Cunningham through the early 1960s—are also on view and delightfully unexpected. Curator of Decorative Arts, Debra Schmidt Bach worked on the exhibition for about a year, after the New York Historical Society acquired the bicycle and jacket for their permanent collection.
“We like to use objects here, as witnesses of history,” said Schmidt Bach. “These objects do that in many different ways. Bill Cunningham was a historian and social anthropologist who was truly documenting American life.”
The exhibition, on view through the summer, won’t require much time to absorb. The gallery is small, but it is a worthwhile visit for any New Yorker and all fans of the late Cunningham. Schmidt Bach has truly tapped into the photographer’s spirit through the objects on view, and it’s almost impossible not to feel the memory of Cunningham’s infectious energy in the gallery. This is also marked by a seven-minute film, looping in the background. Outtakes compiled by director Josef Astor, the footage was originally shot for the 2010 documentary Lost Bohemia. Astor was a longtime neighbor of Cunningham, as the two men lived in studio apartments located above Carnegie Hall. Similar to the widely released documentary of the same year, Bill Cunningham New York directed by Richard Press, Astor’s footage shows the photographer relaxed and in his apartment lined with filing cabinets. In one special moment, Cunningham flips through a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, now presented in one of the glass vitrines in the Society show.
“Part of the legacy that he left behind was his close relationships with a large circle of intimate friends. I had people [from his network] contacting me up until the day we opened, offering anecdotes, artifacts, and identifying photographs for us. It all just flowed and evolved very naturally,” Schmidt Bach commented. “I contribute all that to Bill Cunningham because it is tantamount to the relationships he had with others.”
Celebrating Bill Cunningham is on view at the New York Historical Society through September 9, 2018.
Words Katy Diamond Hamer
Photograph courtesy of the New York Historical Society