Photographer Bill Cunningham (RIP) on Living La Vie Boheme Above Carnegie Hall

New York City lost some of its charm this week­end, with the news that Bill Cun­ning­ham, the Times’ beloved, on-the-street fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er, had passed away at the age of 87.

Much has been made over the fact that he was des­ig­nat­ed a liv­ing land­mark by the New York Land­marks Con­ser­van­cy. It’s an hon­or he earned, hit­ting the streets dai­ly in his usu­al mufti of khakis, sneak­ers, and bleu de tra­vail cot­ton jack­et to hunt his quar­ry by bicy­cle, but one could nev­er accuse him of court­ing it.

His employ­er fre­quent­ly sent him to cov­er the elite, but he had no inter­est in join­ing their ranks, despite his own grow­ing celebri­ty. His “Evening Hours” col­umn doc­u­ment­ed the dressed up doings on the “par­ty cir­cuit.” (This liv­ing New York land­mark nev­er shook his Boston accent, one of the chief delights of his week­ly video series for the Times.) A recent install­ment sug­gests that shoot­ing the likes of actress Nicole Kid­man and Vogue Edi­tor-in-Chief Anna Win­tour dur­ing tony pri­vate func­tions at MoMA and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art (“aht”) was far less excit­ing than encoun­ter­ing col­or­ful­ly clad Himalayan dancers and a children’s craft table at an entire­ly free Sun­day after­noon street fair spon­sored by the Rubin Muse­um of Art.

Play­wright Win­ter Miller shared this anec­dote the morn­ing Cunningham’s death was announced:

…he did­n’t give a fk about who was famous or not. I once met Bill Mur­ray in the lob­by of the old New York Times build­ing. He’d shown up to see if he could track down a pho­to of him and his then-wife that Bill had shot. I brought one Bill to the oth­er, but Bill (Cun­ning­ham) was out on the streets with his blue jack­et, white bike and cam­era. When he returned, I explained how I’d come to take Bill Mur­ray under my wing to help him track down this pho­to. Bill had no idea who Bill Mur­ray was and not unkind­ly told me (that) none of his pho­tos were dig­i­tal, so it would involve him per­son­al­ly dig­ging through old files and he did­n’t have time. I admired that he knew his pri­or­i­ties and nev­er strayed from his task. I had been eager to get Bill Mur­ray the thing he’d want­ed and would have combed though vast files myself… but I nev­er looked. Bill Cun­ning­ham’s files were impen­e­tra­ble to an out­sider.

One likes to think that Mur­ray, who’s known for using his fame as his tick­et to hang with ordi­nary mor­tals, would find much to love about that.

In fact, Mur­ray strikes me as the per­fect can­di­date to play Cun­ning­ham in a biopic cov­er­ing the six decades spent liv­ing and work­ing in a stu­dio over Carnegie Hall. As far as I know, Bill Cun­ning­ham New York, a fea­ture length doc­u­men­tary, is the only time his sto­ry has been cap­tured on the sil­ver screen. How can it be that no one has thought to make a movie cen­tered on the lost bohemi­an peri­od Cun­ning­ham recalls so fond­ly in the slideshow above? It sounds like an Amer­i­can spin on the Lost Generation—sneaking down to the unlocked stage for pho­tog­ra­ph­er Edit­ta Sher­man’s impromp­tu ama­teur per­for­mances of The Dying Swan, an elder­ly cir­cus per­former and her dog roam­ing the halls on a uni­cy­cle, some­one always in a state of undress…

Per­haps Murray’s fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor, Wes Ander­son, could be enlist­ed to set these wheels in motion. The col­or­ful cast of char­ac­ters seem tai­lor-made for this direc­tor, already a fash­ion world favorite.

The hats alone!

Pri­or to acquir­ing an Olym­pus Pen D half-frame cam­era from a friend in 1966, Cun­ning­ham worked as a milliner. Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe used to crack her­self up, try­ing them on in between class­es at the Actor’s Stu­dio. The wife of a Carnegie Hall neigh­bor and Cunningham’s boss, fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ray Solowin­s­ki, served as his mod­el. After he was estab­lished as a fash­ion expert in his own right, Cun­ning­ham admit­ted that his designs were “a lit­tle too exot­ic – you know, for nor­mal peo­ple”.


I think they’re won­der­ful, and hope­ful­ly, Bill Mur­ray, Wes Ander­son and you will agree. See below. I think they’re won­der­ful, and hope­ful­ly, Bill Mur­ray, Wes Ander­son and you will agree. Hats off to the inim­itable Bill Cun­ning­ham, as much a fix­ture of New York as Carnegie Hall.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice for Aspir­ing Pho­tog­ra­phers: Skip the Fan­cy Equip­ment & Just Shoot

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Jazz Pho­tog­ra­phy and The Film He Almost Made About Jazz Under Nazi Rule

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (3)
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  • Randy says:

    In this era of ter­ror­ism, where peo­ple glee­ful­ly slaugh­ter oth­ers, to send them­selves to a bliss­ful after­life, I object to the “rip”-ing of good peo­ple. The after­life is dead­ly to the rest of us.

    When a per­son dies, the mind is gone. The body will be either be pre­served or rot or burn or dis­solve. Nei­ther body nor soul will “rest”.

    The end is the end.

  • Olive Guthrie says:

    No, no, and no. The last thing Bill Cun­ning­ham would want is a movie such as you describe. Wes? God, no, And Bill Mur­ray, for all his protes­ta­tions to the con­trary, is too invest­ed in his own myth (read the old NYT Mag cov­er story/PR piece and com­pare its con­tent with his days as a stu­dent at Reg­is in Den­ver). Cun­ning­ham was tal­ent­ed and kind and reserved and — not just dis­in­ter­est­ed in but — anti-fame­whor­ing. Let him rest in piece. Tru­ly.

  • Olive Guthrie says:

    ^^peace. Or both.

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