“Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive” – Bill Cunningham
It’s hard to imagine not liking, or at least not appreciating, Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer and youthful soul who recently passed away at 87. His sheer joy in photographing people in Manhattan infected even me, whose interest in fashion and style has largely remained academic. Week after week, he shared his discoveries in “On the Street”, short audio slideshows that regaled viewers with seasonal attire and the latest trends, some that he was the first to spot. He frequently used the word “mahvelous” to describe what he saw. Each time he said it, I felt that he meant it. It’s as if he did not have a jaded bone in his bony body; he gave the impression that every day and every moment was new and full of delight. To attain that degree of presence is just as remarkable as his fantastic photographs of regular people. To see freshly requires an absence of ego plus an abundance of spiritual discipline and commitment that’s usually only found among Zen masters, monks and nuns. In an article first published in 2002, he said, “When I get depressed at the office, I go out, and as soon as I’m on the street and see people, I feel better. But I never go out with a preconceived idea. I let the street speak to me.”
The lack of a preconceived idea is often espoused by my Zen teacher who says, “Let life live you,” her equivalent of “let the street speak.” It sounds simple, but how many of us can put our desires, expectations and agendas aside, simply see what is in front of us and respond to it without trying to direct things or shape an outcome? At times, that can feel impossible, yet the late Mr. Cunningham managed to do just that. Much like a devoted Pilgrim along El Camino de Santiago, he showed up in all kinds of weather and braved rain, snow, slush, wind and puddles to see what the street had to say. Since he lived most of his life before the dawn of the Fitbit Age, I doubt he logged the miles he walked and cycled over the course his career. I imagine the distances were considerable, if not formidable, and he probably would not have bragged about them even if he’d known.
He was not a Buddhist but Catholic; still, according to his obituary in The New York Times, he lived a monk-like existence. For many years he slept on a cot propped up by milk crates in a small Carnegie Hall studio surrounded by file cabinets. He shared a bathroom. He didn’t own a television. He ate modestly, often at the same low key restaurants. His uniform, a simple blue French worker’s jacket, served the same purpose as a monk’s robe, allowing him to keep a low profile so he could keep his attention focused firmly on others. Although he was often surrounded by glamour and excess, he refused to partake. Apparently he wouldn’t even accept a glass of water when photographing celebrity or socialite events, let alone the food being served. That kind of deprivation seemed extreme to me, yet it spoke of his desire to remain untainted or uninfluenced by the wealth, if not the excess, around him. He even refused several offers to work at The New York Times until he was hit by a truck and needed health insurance.
Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, a stylist, shared some other examples of ways he protected his independence and sensibility. As quoted in The New York Times: “When I started going to Europe for the shows, we’d go around together. Everyone else was getting into sedans, and we were walking, in the pouring rain. Bill would say, “Oh, no, child, you can’t fall into the traps of the rich.” And I would watch my shoes dissolve into the sidewalk. Or, we’d be at a show, and I’d say, “Bill, it’s really hard to see from the last row.” He’d say, “All the people who tell the truth are in the last rows.”
As a last row person myself, I smiled reading that. I don’t know if he really believed that truth tellers sat in the back, or if he said it to comfort himself and his colleague, but that vantage point allows a person to take in the whole scene, not just what is happening on stage, and maybe experience more of the collective truth of the moment, truth that can be shared with others. Yet it’s not his back row observations that I’ll remember, but his own truth. He LOVED people and style and fashion. That he was able to share this truth so unabashedly and joyfully was, I imagine, hard won. As a young man he dropped out of Harvard. His family hoped he’d learn advertising, the profession of an uncle. Conventionality didn’t stick. In the words of my Zen teacher, he lived his life in a way that “lit him up”. Sometimes it takes a huge amount of courage and persistence to simply be ourselves, to let our light shine. Thank you, Bill Cunningham, for focusing your intelligence and heart on joy and brightening this frightening world.