Finding Beauty on the Street

Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 7:00pm

Finding Beauty on the Street

"The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with. The point is fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is a personal hero, and I'm not that interested in fashion. I'm inspired by who he is as a person. I keep a photograph of him tacked up in my cube with the caption, "I'm looking for something that has beauty."

Cunningham is compelled by clothing — not the celebrity status or pedigree of the wearer. He champions lively personal style wherever and whenever it captures his highly trained eye. On Sundays, I like to soak up his weekly "On the Street" feature in The New York Times. Now he's the subject of a new documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It's the best film I've seen this year.

The documentary reveals Cunningham's incredible work ethic and the ferocious joy of his work. Now in his 80s, he spends his days riding around Manhattan without a helmet on a beat-up bicycle. His film-loaded camera is always at the ready (no, he does not shoot digital), cocked to shoot someone's interesting hat or low-rider pants.

In the evenings, he tours New York's society circuit, snapping photos at charity benefit functions. He never eats the food at these events, and even refuses to accept a glass of water. He says this would compromise his objective stance.

While fashion has been the driver of Cunningham's life and career, he describes his own personal style as dreary. While working, he wears a signature royal blue workman's jacket. For years, he lived in a monk-like studio above Carnegie Hall stuffed with filing cabinets for all of his negatives. It didn't even have a bathroom (it was down the hall). More recently, he has relocated to a bigger apartment. He asked to have the appliances and counters removed to make room for his files.

Bill Cunningham found his passion and calling in life. And because he did, he's given a gift to the rest of us. Here's a reminder from Cunningham to pay attention to what we see, and to look for beauty in our everyday encounters:

"Fashion comes from everywhere. It's all here and the streets are speaking to us."


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Nancy Rosenbaum

is a writer, and a self-described storyteller and connector. She has worked as a producer for media projects including On Being and the PBS documentary Vote for Me: Politics in America. Her projects include "The Meantime Place," where she explores transitions in work and life, and "Story Portraits," a collection of photographs and stories of real people. Find more of her work on her blog.

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