JTF (just the facts): A total of 79 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. With a few exceptions, the prints are sized 8×10 inches (or the reverse). No edition information was provided, although the prints were stored in Cunningham’s files and often only one print of an image was made as reference. (Installation and detail shots below.)
Comments/Context: For generations of fashionable New Yorkers, Bill Cunningham was nothing short of a legend. The long time fashion photographer for the New York Times (who died in 2016) was a fixture in the city’s most fashionable circles, relentlessly shooting at society galas, evening events of all kinds, runway shows, and most memorably, out on the streets right in the thick of the passing pedestrians. In his signature blue work coat and traveling around on his bicycle, he was constantly looking, and his “On the Street” column was a testament to his voracious eye. Each week, out of the whirling chaos of the streets, he picked out trends, patterns, and visual themes that others had overlooked or missed, and having your picture included in one of his densely clustered spreads was a quiet mark of honor.
Cunningham was notoriously (and stubbornly) democratic in his beliefs about fashion. Of course, he made photographs of celebrities, models, titans of industry, and other New York movers and shakers (that was part of his job), but he was equally interested in the fashion looks worn by New Yorkers of all types. Before street fashion photographers became their own subculture and Instagram made everyone fashionable, Cunningham was assiduously searching for those with flair, panache, and style, and celebrating their eccentric creativity in the pages of the city’s paper of record. He loved the cut of a coat, an elegant hat (he was a former milliner himself), an eye catching shoe, a dapper suit, or any other detail he could pattern match with his image archive, and when he gathered together dozens of images of a similar style, he was suddenly able to show us something we hadn’t noticed before.
Part of the challenge that Bruce Silverstein faces when bringing Cunningham’s images to a fine art audience is that Cunningham wasn’t a typical fashion photographer – he actively straddled the worlds of fashion and the street, and his photographs are steeped in that atmosphere. Even when he photographed fashion models and boldfaced names, he was doing it in the context of an event (often party pictures), or simply serendipitously out on the sidewalk – they are candid street portraits rather than studio portraits, and while we can recognize the famous faces, many are simply going about their daily New York lives. This gives his photographs an authenticity that is refreshing, but Cunningham also often catches his subjects in passing rather than carefully posed, at somewhat less than their most perfectly photogenic.
But for those who require a splash of celebrity, this show delivers. There’s Barbra Streisand in a billowy fur, David Bowie in a sleek tuxedo, Jackie O in a houndstooth plaid coat, and Grace Jones in leather. For fashion insiders, the dense grids on view include Cunningham’s images of Anna Wintour, Gianni Versace, Linda Evangelista, and Ralph Lauren, among others, with a further parade of well-known actresses, rock stars, artists, and power players mixed in.
But Cunningham’s photographs of anonymous people are more durably intriguing, since they more clearly represent the photographer’s attraction to the details of fashion, and if we are to celebrate his voice as an artist, we need to pay attention to what he chose to photograph. He showed us the color and pattern combinations of the pumps and tights of the executives of Bendel’s department store, a joyfully patriotic pair of Levi’s, the bold fabric patterns worn by three elderly sisters, the twist of an entire palm frond print ensemble (including hat gloves, top, and skirt), and the swoop of textural winter capes in the wind. He paid attention to backs of dresses, umbrellas, roughly cut shirts, a Marylin-copying subway grate whoosh, big furs on men, and dogs with tutus. And at night, he went to Studio 54 and the Mudd Club, documenting shiny dresses, chunky heeled boots, tight form-fitting body suits, and hot pants. His best pictures pull these details and countless others out of the never ending hustle of the city, making the individuality and personally of all kinds of fashion electrically human.
Cunningham’s eye was broadly omnivorous, so trying to single out stand alone images doesn’t really provide a persuasive window into the fullness of his vision. This show smartly offers several tightly spaced grids with lots to take in, but could have gone further to cluster like images into groups that replicated Cunningham’s synthesized approach to seeing. Cunningham sits at an important inflection point in the history of fashion photography, and if I was a museum curator, I’d want a crisp gaggle of his images of animal prints, winter coats, tank tops, or asymmetrical edges hung as an installation, to clearly show how he changed our thinking. There is an accepting optimism that runs through Cunningham’s work, making us all feel like we can participate, and a tight selection of his attentive street finds can be both a fitting homage to his photographic ingenuity and a celebration of our own everyday self-imagination.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $6000 and $15000. Cunningham’s work has little consistent secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.