The International annual exhibition ArtExpo will show my work from April 21th to 24th. The painting, Bill Cunningham Corner, oil on canvas 40×54 inch, is my tribute to Bill Cunningham. After accidentally meeting and talking to him last year, I was inspired to paint his picture. His death shortly after we met, gave me urgency to proceed with the project.
Here is what I learned about Bill Cunningham and my personal thoughts about his life.
A Very Public Enigma, Bill Cunningham
Most New Yorkers would say that they know who Bill Cunningham was. Local residents regularly bumped into him when walking their dogs or rushing to get their morning or lunch coffee fix on the corner of 5th Avenue and 57th Street, where he took snapshots of uniquely dressed people for decades. There is now a formal petition to officially name the spot in his honor, to become the Bill Cunningham Corner. Others will have read his fascinating columns in The New York Times. A former avant-garde milliner, he gave up his successful hat design business to dedicate himself to fashion writing and photography, and rubbed shoulders with high-profile celebrities in the fashion world and beyond.
But what do we know about him really? A notoriously shy and intelligent introvert, Bill Cunningham has never shared any information about his personal life yet as the first editor to cover gay events in the press. Despite all the glamour he was surrounded with, his fortunate family upbringing and even a short stint at Harvard on full scholarship, he clearly avoided any publicity and shied away from any attention on himself. Despite many celebrity acquaintances and his open status, did he hide behind his camera and zoomed in only on people that were as unique as he was through his lens? Was he a manifestation of the New Yorkers’ special type of loneliness, which makes being alone particularly melancholic, amongst so many people, but also is so common today that it has been normalised in our society?
After all, our knowledge of Bill can be summarised in a few standard labels that we have mostly picked up from a 2011 documentary made about him, Bill Cunningham New York: A fashion-obsessed bachelor editor for the Times, revered by the fashion community, with his own signature style of black sneakers, khaki pants and blue jacket, always on a bike despite famously losing over twenty bikes in various accidents and to bike thieves, living in a tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building. He sounds like so many other New Yorkers. But his identity as we know is not shaped by anything personal, specific, and deep. In spite of representing such a cliché, what makes him Bill Cunningham is his visionary pioneering of street fashion blogging, during nearly thirty years. His idea of taking quick snapshots on the streets of clothes he perceived as unique worn by people and posting them on his column differs from modern photo blogs only by the use of technology.
What is interesting about this is how his work de-personalizes the person wearing the clothes and turns it into a mannequin that demonstrates clothes, as Cunningham was very rarely interested in people for their own sake and fascinated by their unique styles. He famously took photos of Greta Garbo’s coat without being interested in her celebrity in the slightest, or ignored Catherine Deneuve ‘because she wasn’t wearing anything interesting’. At the same time, Cunningham pioneered the paper’s coverage of the then unspoken-about gay community, thus making the visible people invisible, and invisible people visible through his art. Like many other celebrities, his own public profile appears to be very visible as we all feel we know him through his work and the documentary about him. Yet if you are trying to find something personal about him, something that gives you insight into his heart and mind, you suddenly realize that the man behind the camera lens on the Bill Cunningham Corner with a bike waiting for him is a very public enigma which makes you reflect on how public identities get constructed, promoted, and naturalized in today’s society.
This painting is a tribute to the incognito public enigma, Bill Cunningham, who came to New York at the age of 19 and left New York forever in June 2016, dying of complications of a stroke at the age of 87. Reflected here as we think we know him, he stands for the ability of media to create powerful public identities and construct celebrity of people even despite their will. The current online petition to name his regular photography spot after him is the most recent example of imposing celebrity on people whose whole life proves that they desired to remain anonymous. One has to question, is the society creating our identities, rather than us presenting our identities in the society? The jury is out.