Bill Cunningham, Me & The Photograph That Never Was

Originally published in Refinery29

With the world lately feeling so completely out of whack, it seemed an even crueler blow to also lose Bill Cunningham this past weekend. The treasured New York Times fashion photographer passed away last Saturday following complications from a stroke. He was 87.

We all loved Bill. You couldn’t not love him. He was the unofficial mayor of New York fashion. And, really, fashion everywhere. The Godfather of street style and the crusader of every self-expressing man and woman. You didn’t have to peacock for Bill. In fact, he preferred if you didn’t. His passionate, deeply personal observance of life, pain, generations, trends, and misfits made him our most cherished documentarian of decades and design. He loved people, which is probably why he photographed people in moments — real ones — in which his subjects were most naturally themselves. It was this humanity, too, I have to think, that guided his choice to publish those photos...or not to.

The first time Bill photographed me was in 2011. I didn’t even know it had happened until my friend texted me in all caps, “STYLE SECTION!! BILL!! YOU!!” There I was, in a collection of images featuring trench coats, called “Detected.” And not just in one photo but two: a side-by-side view of the back and the front of a now “vintage” Alexander Wang coat. It wasn’t until I listened to his audio commentary about the feature that I realized WHY he had chosen to show my jacket from dual angles: because he thought it was weird — but not weird, exactly.

The coat, a standout from one of Wang’s earlier cult-stoking collections, featured the yoke (or top) of a trench coat; but where the actual coat should have been, there was just a pinstriped, asymmetric lining.

Yup, no coat, just a lining pretending to be a coat. I guess Bill really got a kick out of this, because when he got to my photo in his accompanying New York Times audio recording, he just laughed (cackled, actually, I think) and deemed the jacket, “A frivolity!” At first, I felt embarrassed, like the coat was a joke, and I hadn't realized it. But it wasn’t until later on that I understood Bill’s remark wasn’t a criticism but more likely an example of his loving disposition and appreciation for a silly, impractical coat, stylish as it was; a jacket likely only a silly, impractical New Yorker would wear in the rain.

But I loved it, and, I think, so did he. There’s another story about Bill and me, though, that I think is even more revealing of who he was, regarding a photo he didn’t run. It was Fashion Week 2012, and I was emerging from a hot, crowded Thom Browne show inside the New York Public Library. On my way to the exit, I spotted an old phone booth with an empty bench inside. I wasn’t used to wearing high heels all day, and this particular day was killer. I seized the moment, squeezed myself inside the booth, and, out of the sightline of the crowd, proceeded to change from heels into my white plimsolls, stowed in my bag for such an occasion. Just as I was lacing up one of the shoes, the abandoned heels there on the ground in front of me, I heard the snapping of a camera…click, click, click! There was Bill, leaning way out of the crowd, snapping away at my exhausted, rumpled, undignified state. He really didn’t miss a THING. I was utterly mortified! Even more mortifying (it gets worse!), I uncontrollably burst into tears. Catching myself, I looked at him sincerely, and asked, rather desperately, “Please, Mr. Cunningham…please don’t run this picture.”

He just smiled and nodded at me, snapped one more picture, and then quickly vanished (a trick he mastered so well). Seeing me in a situation so raw, owed to the punishing pace of Fashion Week and busy life in a hard city, I can only imagine he could relate. And probably knew other people could, too. My feet really hurt. So, I had a working girl moment and changed into sneakers. Sue me. He never did run that photo. Maybe because it was just a crappy picture that wasn't good enough to run. Maybe because it was only for him, and nobody else…not even me. It was just a momentary glimpse of this singular visionary’s observance of everyday life, after all. For me, though, it was a glimpse of the genuine empathy he lived through his lens.

It was well known that Bill Cunningham slept among hundreds of filing cabinets storing probably thousands upon thousands of images of thousands of people, through which he must have experienced a certain kind of life — living it, seeing it, and loving us with tenderness and care. How lucky we were.