Celebrating Bill Cunningham

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Bill Cunningham at a New York Public Library event with (L–R) Queens Library president Dennis Walcott, Carnegie Corporation of New York board chairman Gov. Thomas Kean, NYPL president Tony Marx, and Vartan Gregorian. (Photo: Aria Isadora)

On October 17, Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, was invited to speak at a Carnegie Hall celebration of the life and legacy of the late New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.

Bill Cunningham was a maverick troubadour in love with New York.

He sang its praises with photographs that capture the glamour, grace, and dynamism of our great institutions and our most remarkable citizens.

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He celebrated all aspects of our multifaceted city—the unique and the ordinary, the aspirational and the inspirational, as well as the extraordinary, the esoteric, the humorous, the daring, and, most important, the joyous and the beautiful.

He discovered them all, whether at a literary event, a fashion show, an art or science exhibition, or a cultural celebration—even on the city streets.

Wherever he went, he served as the eyes of New York, witnessing for the city in good times and in bad, and becoming, in the process, a living New York landmark.

I first met this troubadour more than 35 years ago, when I began my tenure as president of The New York Public Library.

At first, I did not notice Bill, for he was always unobtrusive.

He was not a paparazzo—rushing, pursuing, pushing, and shoving—but rather embodied the spirit and quiet dignity of an artist.

My wife and I soon formed a lasting friendship with him, along with a deep and abiding respect for his talent and his dedication.

In the early 1980s, when the city and the library were in dire financial straits, Bill was among the core figures who came to the rescue.

He joined the likes of library trustees Brooke Astor, Andrew Heiskell, Richard Salomon, and other dedicated board members, public officials, and ordinary citizens who were determined not to allow the Library to become obsolete or to slip into mediocrity and dilapidation.

While the entirety of the New York press took up the cause of the Library, Bill stood apart for the depth and tenacity of his commitment.

He put the library in the social pages of the New York Times again and again.

I once heard A. M. Rosenthal, the late executive editor of the Times, ask Arthur Gelb, then the Times’s managing editor, “Is something wrong? A day has passed without something in the paper about the library!”

In the Times, Bill highlighted philanthropists, those who, like Andrew Carnegie, transcended their wealth for causes and passions greater than themselves.

He also, for the first time, made writers and scholars—poets, novelists, historians, scientists, philosophers, journalists—celebrities in their own right.

In them, Bill recognized not only fellow creators who were deserving of acclaim, but also the cultural force that they constituted.

But Bill did not cover just the accomplished and the famous.

He had an abiding interest in ordinary New Yorkers and in nature, celebrating street life and the beauty of seasonal changes all year round, in all kinds of weather.

He loved everyone and everything that made New York great, whether humble or grand.

Bill was among the most modest people I have ever met.

He did not travel in limos or accept gifts or invitations to be a guest at fancy dinners and parties.

Instead, he relied on a simple upright bicycle, one of some 30 he owned over the years, to get him uptown and downtown, come rain or come shine.

Similarly, Bill never sought recognition for himself. Nonetheless, fame found him.

He was heralded for his photographs, and sometimes left his beloved New York to photograph the elegant and the fashionable, the sublime and the esoteric, in other parts of the world.

In 2008, France honored him with the Légion d’Honneur, a richly deserved recognition.

At the ceremony in Paris, after he was presented with the medal, Bill told his admirers, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”

Bill lived up to this sentiment in every way—he found beauty and goodness everywhere.

Bill had a list of his “champs”—I was one of them—who believed that democracy and beauty, taste, excellence, and integrity are not mutually exclusive.

He knew that all of New York’s cultural institutions—the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, the great performing arts complex that is Lincoln Center, The New York Public Library, the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and MoMA, not to mention the New Victory Theater, The New York Botanical Garden, the New-York Historical Society, and on and on and on—were worthy of recognition and support, for they are centers of education and expression, the guardians of our history and heritage.

Indeed, they constitute the DNA of our city, our nation, and our civilization.

For so many decades, Bill’s pictures were part of the daily lives of New Yorkers (and of all the others around the world who read the New York Times).

It is my ardent hope that the trove of Bill's photographs—a treasure in itself—will be here for future generations, telling the history of New York as only Bill Cunningham could.

It is up to us to preserve them, to maintain their safety and their integrity, and to ensure that they will be seen and cherished by generations of New Yorkers to come. They are Bill’s greatest gift to us all—to this city, to its citizens, and to the world.