Editta Sherman with the Guggenheim.

He Who Seeks Beauty

Bill Cunningham seeks beauty in so many places
Bill Cunningham photographs his models on the steps of the New York City Courthouse.

He Who Seeks Beauty

In the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, a passionate observer is shown to viewers as the film crew trails him, sometimes at his desk at The New York Times, but often on one of 29 bicycles he’s owned over the past few decades (that’s the count when the film was made in 2010 after 28 of them had been stolen as he knelt at the curb with his camera raised or stepped inside one of New York City’s notable soirees—the number could certainly be higher now).

“The best fashion show is on the street,” he declared. “Always has been; always will be!” As he combed Manhattan’s sidewalks to tease out trends, it impressed me immensely that he never bought into the material world, even as he lived to capture its spirit. And though it would appear there were two versions of the photographer—the one in his duct-taped poncho on the street and the dapperly dressed gentleman at black-tie fund-raisers—he was genuinely no different regardless of the garb.

Editta Sherman Grand Central Terminal.
Editta Sherman poses in front of Grand Central Terminal.

When pressed to explain how it is he’s able to identify the trends he sees, he shot back, “I don’t decide anything: I let the street speak to me. In order to hear, you have to stay out there.” And stay he does, filling his “On the Street” pages with shots taken at such a rapid pace it seems miraculous any of them are clear enough to publish. Don’t forget, he’s in his 80s!

A maker of fashions before he became a taker of fashions, he designed hats under the millinery label of William J; then he began curating coincidences he saw as he rode around town—an entire page of varied shades of blue morphed to a page filled with cropped pants morphed to a page of similarly structured coats. Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper magazine, compared him to a war photographer who’ll do anything to get the shot.

Bill Cunningham Seeks Beauty in Fashion and Life

“He photographs life,” said Annette de la Renta, wife of iconic fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. But it’s a somewhat parodied pastiche of life chronicled in a series of photographs on view at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library through June 15, 2014.

The pairings of vintage fashion and architecture illustrate the exuberant artist’s eye and point of view. I trekked to the museum last Friday to see the images he had styled with outfits he found in New York City’s thrift shops and street fairs, calling on friends like Editta Sherman to model for him in front of some of the city’s most notable buildings.

He began his Façades project in 1968, just for fun, and spent eight years amassing over 500 outfits he photographed in over 1800 locations, jotting down details on the versos of many of the prints. On the back of a shot of Sherman in a velvet frock coat, vest and breeches, he wrote, “Our model appears in man’s clothes not as a joke but rather as a means of showcasing a historical treasure found amidst the trash of a second hand 9th Ave shop.”

He was also keen on writing down what deals he snagged in these resale establishments—a 1770s mob-cap of white lace and taffeta the thrift shop mistook as a chair doily cost him $2; and an embroidered muslin Napoleon I dress with a shawl, circa 1804, was a steal because it had arrived as protective wrapping for a porcelain vase and no one realized its value.

Editta Sherman with the Guggenheim.
One of Bill Cunningham’s most playful shots of Editta Sherman with the Guggenheim Museum behind her.

Bill Cunningham: National Order of the Legion of Honour

I was glad I had watched the documentary for a second time the night before I went to see the exhibition because his spirit and authenticity that shone through in the film made the photographs feel so much more alive. As I walked through the rooms holding his images, I heard the emotion in his voice during his acceptance speech for the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France: “It’s not work, it’s pleasure. It’s as true today as it’s ever been—he who seeks beauty will find it.”

He choked up as he said the last bit, his determination to create beauty with his pairings evident in his energy and the result, though not every shot an au courant take on attractiveness—it is his brand of beauty we see through his eyes.

He told the documentarians that he has gone to church most Sundays since he was a kid; that when he was young, he spent his time looking at the women’s hats—it was the rare photograph in the exhibition that didn’t come to its creative flourish by way of a hat.

I loved watching him scribble in his reporter’s notebook and hearing him say he wouldn’t take money for his gigs at Details magazine because he didn’t want anyone to try to control his work: “Money’s the cheapest thing; freedom’s the most expensive,” he said. This wasn’t mere posturing, as was evidenced by the fact he pulled his heart medication from a folded NYT envelope he took from the pocket of his jacket in a Paris café. This was done so unselfconsciously I’d have a tough time believing he had staged it.

Editta Sherman on the Subway.
Editta Sherman on the Subway, photographed by Bill Cunningham.

Sherman was in many of his pairings in the show and I marveled at the image of her standing tall in that velvet ensemble as a salute to the tower of St. Paul’s Chapel; responded viscerally to her strong profile with the voluminous flowered and feathered hat imitating the statuary atop Grand Central Terminal; and giggled when I saw her pert posture as she hid beneath the puffy pouf of a hat mimicking the shape of the Guggenheim’s conical tower.

Lou Reed’s I’ll Be Your Mirror

I heard the final song of the documentary flowing forth as I looked at the edgiest photograph in the exhibition—Sherman seated in a subway car slathered in graffiti, her pale period clothing the antithesis of the dirty backdrop and crude black letters defacing the dented metal surfaces. It was the Velvet Underground with Nico singing Lou Reed’s lyrics “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” I thought it an excellent choice given Cunningham’s life is spent mirroring what he sees, and it brought tears to my eyes surrounded by his heartfelt photography project.

Cunningham was adamant that his projects are not about celebrity for him; they are about fashion. He who seeks beauty will find it, he said on the stage in front of that enrapt Parisian audience. “I find it hard to believe you don’t know/ The beauty that you are,” Nico crooned in her odd accent as the closing credits rolled. This doesn’t just apply to the self-effacing Mr. Cunningham’s images, but to the man himself.

He was wont to poke fun at himself for his grand lack of fashion sense as he duct-taped his poncho and bought cheap electric blue jackets that became his signature but that’s exactly why he’s so precious—neither his own physical comfort or appearance matters as he sacrifices all for the effort in everything he does. I highly recommend you see the movie and view the exhibition as a dual exercise; the payoff will be tremendous! Because I’d love to own any one of these beautiful works of art, I’m including this entry in my Living with Art series.

The Modern Salonnière and this entry © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.