Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


A Life Lesson from Bill Cunningham

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

Bill Cunningham at Fashion Week photographed by Jiyang Chen via Wikipedia

Bill Cunningham died a few weeks ago. I never knew the man, only of him, but nevertheless his life is a one lesson in the most difficult challenge of all: staying true to who you are.

Everyone knows Bill took photographs. He photographed socialites, downtown kids, street dancers. He trained his 35-millimeter camera, put his energies on something everyone had previously dismissed, and became a voice in fashion.

But I didn’t particularly care what he took photos of, I cared about the manner in which he did it: in uniform. Donning a blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants, and black sneakers day after day, he chased after his images, often astride a bicycle.

He wasn’t a Chase Jarvis, the century’s poster boy of success in photography. (Jarvis is a photographer turned entrepreneur who worked with name brands, wields an impressive online platform and has a web series to his name.) He was simply Bill, a man who slept in a single-size cot and, until 2010, showered in a shared bathroom, and then went out on the streets to photograph.
He went about his business and he did it, in Frank Sinatra’s immortal words, his way, without any excuses about his looks or his taste in clothing.

It was a bold choice, at least in my eyes.

Image is at such a premium nowadays. Celebrities have stylists that ensure every piece of clothing they wear telegraphs the right message. Us regular folks have to settle for our best friend’s opinion. All of us browse magazines and websites to make sure each accessory, piece of clothing, even the way our hair is coifed all contribute to a visual of what we want people to think we are. Bill, it seemed, was above all that. He just was.

Perhaps that is the quality that drew most people to him. His integrity. He lived a life without doubt. He lived with the utmost courage to be himself. He was a puzzle, shooting beautiful, interesting, aha people without himself wanting to be them.

Bill will most likely be most remembered for his photographs, his yearbook of New Yorkers on the streets, but his most important lesson for me was his steadfastness in being himself, in what made him happiest.

If only more people would be so wise.


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