A Merry Chase: Bill Cunningham & What It Means to Be a Spiritual Artist

Bill Cunningham during Fashion Week, photographed by Jiyang Chen (Wikimedia Commons)

Would it be possible to be engaged in the swirling world of the arts and lead a spiritual life? What, exactly, would that look like? The answer came to me in the form of a wonderful documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. (I’ve embedded the video below.)

Bill Cunningham’s life showed how it’s possible to live by high principles and still do art. Bill was a street fashion photographer. For thirty-eight years, from 1978 until his passing in 2016, he wrote a pair of weekly columns for the New York Times: On the Street, and Evening Hours. Bill rode around the city on his bicycle, photographing what people were wearing. In the evening he would photograph formal fashion and charity events.

Bill scoffed at the idea that he was an artist – he didn’t travel to exotic locales with models, assistants, makeup artists, and stylists. Bill took hundreds of pictures weekly for his columns, yet he thought of himself not as a photographer but a documentarian.

He didn’t care a fig about celebrity; to Bill, only the clothes mattered.

“He once explained why he was not joining a group of photographers who swarmed around (actress) Catherine Deneuve: ‘But she isn’t wearing anything interesting!’”

Bill lived a spartan life. He dressed simply in black shoes, khaki pants, and a French street sweeper’s blue coat (because his dangling camera wore holes in the jackets, and they cost just $20).

His apartment was a tiny former office space in Carnegie Hall, crammed with filing cabinets that held his meticulously organized negatives. His bed was supported by milk crates. The bathroom was down the hall. He never married, had no romantic relationships, and had no interests outside of photography and fashion. He had no social life, although he counted many people as friends.

His niece, Trish Jarvis Simonson, said, “I am continually overwhelmed by all of the people I meet who were affected by Bill, from the doorman to his apartment building, to the security guards at the Times, to the folks at his favorite café. I am overwhelmed, but not surprised. For as long as I knew Bill, he showed himself to be uncompromisingly sincere and kind.”

He treated friends, coworkers, and his photographic subjects with equal kindness regardless of their social status. When  Women’s Wear Daily used Bill’s photos to mock their subjects, he was devastated and severed all ties with the magazine.

Bill was Catholic; he went to church every Sunday and was deeply religious, though he was reluctant to discuss that side of his life.

Bill wrote his Times columns as a freelancer, never accepting permanent employment because he treasured the freedom to follow his own inspiration.

“You see, if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid!”

“The important thing is never to be owned.”

“Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

Only at the end of his life, when he was seriously ill, did he accept a salary from the Times so that he could get health insurance.

He wasn’t blind to the apparent contradiction between his lifelong love of fashion and his ascetic lifestyle. He said, “The wider world that perceives fashion as sometimes a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous – the point is in fact that fashion, ah, you know, in point of fact it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”

Here is the wonderful documentary about Bill Cunningham (84 minutes):

For those who would like to learn more about Bill Cunningham, there is an enjoyable moderated discussion on YouTube with two friends who knew and loved him (61 minutes), and a 57-minute interview with Bill by Marilyn Kirschner, editor of lookonline.com.

— Rambhakta