My graduate school advisor had a lot of very good advice, true to her title. Most of it boiled down to a quote from philosopher and civil rights activist Howard Thurman that she’d hung on her office door:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
That quote–and my advisor–kept running through my mind as I watched Bill Cunningham New York, a 2010 documentary on the 80-year-old New York Times on-the-street fashion photographer.
Style, and the people who have it, make Cunningham come alive. During a Paris awards ceremony at which he is slated to receive a prize, Cunningham wanders around snapping pictures. “I just think it’s so funny that you’re working at your own party,” a guest remarks. “My darling,” Cunningham says, “it’s not work, it’s pleasure.”
What fascinates the gentle, stubborn journalist is fashion alchemy: how the right combination of shoes and hats and scarves and coats can produce a look that’s at once unique and expressive of a larger cultural moment. As his fondness for Anna Piaggi of Italian Vogue makes clear, Cunningham is particularly delighted by people who aren’t afraid to stand out in a crowd. It’s telling that he calls Piaggi a “poet of clothes” and that he frequently describes the fashions he sees on the streets in terms of classical paintings and symphonies. In clothing, Cunningham sees beauty, art, democracy, history, travel, community, and self-expression. His gift is to show everyone else how to see those things too.
Watching the film, I kept taking mental notes on how Cunningham has located, and preserved, real joy in his work. Two of the key elements, I think, are his egalitarianism and humility. Not only does he protect those qualities in himself, he infuses them into his corners of realms famed for their elitism–New York society, the Times, and fashion.
When Cunningham attends fashion shows, he doesn’t take pictures of clothing unless he believes it would work for a woman who wasn’t a supermodel. He hates fashion magazines that designate trends as in or out. “His feeling is it’s all equally in,” an interviewee explains. It’s not that Cunningham likes everything–only that he favors creativity and dislikes easy categorizations. He’s long understood the innate style of Kenny Kenny, a genderqueer artist and former Club Kid. Kenny Kenny recalls how Cunningham tried to get the Times to publish a photograph of zer in a dress in 1986. When the paper refused, Cunningham promised to keep trying. “And now,” Kenny Kenny says with a wry smile, “they put everything in.” Cunningham has a rare ability to zero in past hierarchies and status, cutting to the heart of true style.
Another key to Cunningham’s vitality is that he’s protected himself from being bought. At the time of the documentary, he lives in a Lilliputian rent-controlled apartment that is part of an artists’ enclave above Carnegie Hall. His bosses and co-workers have multiple stories about how he’s refused to cash paychecks on various principles. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he explains with a wide grin. When he attends high-society balls and charity events, he always eats beforehand so that his status as a journalist–not a guest–is firmly intact.
Of course, refusing paychecks isn’t an option that’s available to many. Multiple people interviewed for the documentary say that they assume Cunningham comes from money: after all, he’s comfortable among Astors and debutantes, and generally only rich people can afford to live in elegantly elective poverty. But while the signs of an old-money background are there, the conclusion proves false. Cunningham grew up in a working-class, conservative family. He’s simply an artist who’s had the privilege, talent, drive, and luck to design his life as he wished to live it.
The documentary does elude some issues of exclusivity. Cunningham definitely makes an effort to incorporate a diverse range of people into his photographs, particularly in his on-the-street fashion reporting. Nonetheless, there are demographic realities about the type of person most regularly featured in “Sunday Styles” or “Evening Hours”: white, thin, and wealthy. Cunningham must have thoughts on how visibility in such influential columns impacts cultural ideas of who is worthy of being seen and admired; it would have been interesting to hear them.
Still, what stuck with me was the modesty with which Cunningham goes about pursuing his passion. What elements forged the man who understands that the key to fashion photography is to be discrete, quiet, and invisible–to work so that the beauty of others shines through?
A clue emerges just minutes from the end of the film. Cunningham mentions in passing that he’s a regular churchgoer, explaining that that’s where he goes to hear music. But when the documentarian asks him to elaborate, saying, “I know that you go to church every Sunday,” something unexpected happens. Cunningham bows his white-haired head; his mouth trembles. He pauses, and the pause goes on longer and longer.
I spontaneously started crying at this point, I was so surprised and suddenly protective of him. The documentarian, perhaps having a similar reaction, remarks gently, “You don’t have to answer.” Cunningham pauses a while longer, then raises his head to speak.
It’s one of the truest spiritual moments I’ve seen on film. (If it matters, I’m saying this as a secular Jew.) When Cunningham finally starts talking, what he says isn’t anything remarkable. But that long, long silence shifts around everything we’ve learned about him, arranging it into a pattern as lovely and unreadable as dim shapes through rain-splattered glass.
“It’s as true today as it ever was,” Cunningham says as he accepts an award. “He who seeks beauty will find it.” This big-hearted documentary, and Cunningham’s eccentric, light-filled life, make me believe he’s right. So here are the questions I have, for you reader-friend and for myself: Where do you seek beauty? What makes you come alive?