The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Fashion in the Streets
Bill Cunningham
R. Wayne Parsons
Photo by Bill Cunningham . Source:
Bill Cunningham, "Grand Central Terminal, New York City" 1968

Bill Cunningham is the type of personality that gives life to New York City: passionate about an interest (in his case, fashion), persevering, hard working to the point of obsession, extremely knowledgeable about his subject, and a bit eccentric. All of these qualities come together in Facades, the current exhibition at the New York Historical Society.

Best known, of course, for his weekly New York Times column “On the Street,” Cunningham documents the variety of fashion statements found on Gotham streets, mean or otherwise (mostly the latter). He also is responsible for “Evening Hours,” which features snapshots of bold face names (actually in bold face) in attendance at the many charity galas that define the moneyed social scene.

He is serious about fashion, though not always in a serious way. “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life, Cunningham says. “I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” His eclectic approach includes not only the world of pricey designer creations, but also the democratic mix of the streets — what one sees by standing for hours on street corners, observing and photographing, which he does daily. According to him, “the fashion show has always just been on the street.”

Cunningham came to New York in 1948 to pursue a career in fashion. In his early years in the city he worked in a variety of jobs, including copywriting; he also founded a small millinery company (hats were a particular passion). These efforts were interrupted when he was drafted during the Korean War. But he returned after discharge and again went into fashion, at some point taking up photography as an adjunct to his fashion interest, though apparently without much formal instruction in the subject.

Photo by Bill Cunningham . Source:
Bill Cunningham, "

GM Building, New York City " 1968

In 1968 Cunningham embarked on a mammoth project to document fashion in the context of the city, photographing period fashion outfits in front of New York buildings that span the sweep of the city’s history. Cunningham and Editta Sherman, his collaborator and model, scoured thrift stores and flea markets looking for appropriate outfits, eventually netting more than five hundred. The project was thoroughly researched to find appropriate settings and to ensure historical accuracy in the building/garment pairings. Over the next eight years they spent almost every weekend traveling to sites Cunningham had previously selected for photo sessions. At the conclusion of the project in 1976 more than 1800 locations had been photographed, all in black-and-white.

Photo by Bill Cunningham . Source:
Bill Cunningham, "Editta Sherman on the Subway " 1968

That same year Cunningham donated eighty-eight silver gelatin prints to the New York Historical Society, and the current exhibition is based on that collection. Fifty-five letter-size vintage prints are displayed, and an additional twenty-two are represented by larger, more recent prints.

It is apparent from the photos that Cunningham and Sherman had loads of fun with their project, and the exhibition visitor will, too. Sherman, the enthusiastic trooper, hams it up in her elaborate and anachronistic outfits. Striving to heighten a sense of historical authenticity, Cunningham excludes pedestrians from the image frame. However, one of the most interesting photos, shot in Rockefeller Center, includes in the background an intruding woman whose puzzled expression seems to say: “What in the world is going on here?” It is the kind of serendipity I surmise the Bill Cunningham of “On the Street” would welcome.

Photo by Unknown artist . Source:
Unknown artist, "Bill Cunningham Photographing Models" ca 1975

Mr. Cunningham certainly deserves an A+ for conception and for the effort needed to complete the project. Unfortunately, it gives me no pleasure to report that the grade for execution would be C to C-. By the usual standards of black-and-white photography these prints are a mess. They are often unattractively muddy, and facades are sometimes too dark and with insufficient contrast to properly present the architecture. Ms. Sherman’s outfits are frequently not properly illuminated, leading to loss of detail as well as a failure to adequately differentiate the dress from the architecture. Some prints have been dodged around Ms. Sherman in an attempt to separate her from the background, but typically these efforts were clumsily done, and only exacerbate the problem.

Nevertheless, the visitor with a penchant for fashion and/or city history and architecture, willing to look around the obvious technical problems, will enjoy this playful, yet serious exhibition.

Bill Cunningham

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
UWS & Uptown         Map

212 873 3400

Friday, March 14 to
Sunday, June 15, 2014
Hours: Tues-Sat, 10 to 6; Sun 11 to 5

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