At 12.45pm yesterday afternoon, New York City unveiled the ultimate tribute to the man who captured the city's inhabitants in all their contradictory glory - high above the intersection at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. It's a sign that says it all, lovingly marking the spot that became his patch. Bill's patch. For now, it's “Bill Cunningham Corner.”
Blink on the sidewalk of Midtown Manhattan and you might’ve missed Bill Cunningham: a spindle-limbed cyclist whizzing past pedestrians in a French utilitarian blue worker’s jacket, khaki trousers and sneakers, with a Nikon FM2 slung across his back – and a fold up plastic poncho stashed in his utility bag if it rained.
But Bill Cunningham never missed New Yorkers. He saw them. He saw everyone: young and old, rich and poor, flamboyant and sensible. He was looking for the extraordinary in the most ordinary of circumstances. A splash of brilliance on the pavement: a thoughtless leap of faith over a puddle in the rain.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Cunningham was always searching for "the magic" in the everyday. Without fail, he always found it. As he wrote for the NY Times in 2002: “I let the street speak to me.” Cunningham believed he could find the answers he couldn’t see on the catwalk – and he was right.
Style, for Cunningham, was all about the natural details: the way an umbrella is carried on the way to work, or how a coat is tucked underarm at a crowded party without a cloakroom. His photography was always inspired by real life. He will forever be considered the “father of street style”.
Bill was always on-call. “You spend days, weeks, years waiting for what I call a stunner,” Cunningham explained. Armed with a camera and pedalling his bicycle (regularly replaced without complaint when either stolen or broken), his life was dedicated to pursuing this mission. Suffice to say his work was never done.
Over the years, Cunningham’s iconic ‘On The Street’ column for the NY Times had a huge influence on the fashion world. It will be a far less vibrant and truthful place without him. As Vogue’s Anna Wintour once said, “we all dress for Bill.”
In 2010 a popular documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, catapulted the photographer to legendary status and shone a light on a private and shy individual who much preferred finding subjects than actually being one. It was a beautiful love song to a lost art - and an unknowable force of nature. This was all a part of his unique charm. His quiet intensity and childlike zeal for people seeped into the photographs he took.
In the photographer's own words: "He who seeks beauty will find it."
Thank you, Bill. You found it.
By Kat Lister