Respect Yourself: Bill Cunningham

Duncan Cooper spends a lot of time on the internet. Every other Monday, he pays tribute to the hours spent with original video and audio. This week he celebrates the photographer Bill Cunningham, his new favorite paradox.

I saw Bill Cunningham New York a week ago and I can’t stop thinking about it. Cunningham is the 82-year-old photographer behind The New York Times’ “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns, venues he invented to showcase his candid fashion photography. He’s a fragile, smiling antisocial who sleeps between file cabinets, refuses paychecks to gain creative autonomy, has never been on a date, wears the same garbageman’s smock every day, rides his bike everywhere, doesn’t drink and hardly eats. He’s a recluse, but here’s a film quoting French fashion managers to say Bill Cunningham is “the most important person on Earth.” It seems by totally, sacrificially devoting his life to the craft of on-the-street fashion photography, Cunningham has achieved the perfect prolific artist’s life.

That’s the goal, right, the perfect artist’s life? I want to believe Cunningham has it, but no matter how I try to privilege total selfish ambition, as if that’s how to become a legendary and successful person living wholly in pursuit of art and (therefore) happiness, seeing Cunningham ride alone on his bicycle, seeing him always pulling away, on that bike totally in control and totally alone in life, always shot inaccessibly from behind… his isolation is always going to be unsettling. There’s something really primitive about that, and it puts everything into question. Every smile is darkened by the undeniable loneliness of riding a bike by yourself at night. How can you trust ascetic happiness, the satisfaction of denying bodily needs to focus totally on the joy of “seeking beauty,” as Cunningham puts it, when the sight of asceticism is so profoundly tragic? A few reviews of the film describe Cunningham as a lovable grandfather figure—and maybe I kept choking up watching it because he reminded me of my own dead grandpa—but it’s a broken analogy because Cunningham’s family starts and stops with him. To try and understand Cunningham that way violates this disciplined solitude he’s built his life around. There’s something very unsettling about such an endlessly charming loner. I can’t trust his happiness, and I can’t trust the idea that such focused devotion is the way to total joy. So often with art we define success by obsession, and I don’t know how to deal with that.

POSTED April 11, 2011 6:40PM IN RESPECT YOURSELF Comments (5) TAGS: , ,

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  1. Pingback: RESPECT YOURSELF 6: BILL CUNNINGHAM : Blog

  2. Roger says:

    I think you are conflating Asceticism with Aesthetics. Aesthetics is concerned with beauty. “Asceticism describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures. (wikipedia”).

  3. Duncan Cooper says:

    No, that’s exactly what I mean, self-denial. Despite his love of fashion, he never indulges in buying clothes himself; he eats the cheapest food, refuses food and drink whenever it’s offered, sleeps on a cot, finds an apartment view of Central Park “embarrassing,” and says stuff like, “Who the hell wants a kitchen of a bathroom.” In my thing I don’t really speculate on his sexuality, but there’s an argument to be made that his isolation is because he’s not letting himself be gay, and that all this self-discipline is a way of punishing himself about it.

  4. Roger says:

    No, I understand your thesis, but in this sentence you incorrectly use the word ascetic.
    “How can you trust ascetic happiness, the joy of “seeking beauty,” as Cunningham puts it, when the sight of asceticism is so profoundly tragic” –
    “Ascetic happiness” would refer to seeking happiness through a rejection of worldly pleasure.
    He could seek “aesthetic happiness” and practice asceticism, but the two words are not the same.

  5. Duncan Cooper says:

    Yeah, that was poorly written. Thanks for responding. My idea of using “ascetic” there was just the self-satisfaction of being a starving artist, whereby beauty becomes a sort of god, and by rejecting bodily pleasure the artist can feel a spiritual security about devoting his life to a perceived higher calling. The ascetic feels joy in debasing himself because it affirms his life as subordinate to the aesthetic. So to use an example from the movie, him being so happy about wearing a shitty plastic bag raincoat is at least partly to say, “I’m not the point, I’m just here to take these pictures.”