Friends of photographer Bill Cunningham introduce exhibit of his work
By Alexander Castro
Special to The Daily News
NEWPORT- Bill Cunningham took thousands upon thousands of photos during his decades as a fashion photographer for The New York Times. Each week his collaborator and page designer John Kurdewan was tasked with the seeming impossibility of narrowing it all down to a broadsheet. Like many exhausting tasks, it began over cups of coffee.
“This was the biggest number of photos we ever put on a single page: 82,” the Times designer and artist recalled Sunday as a PowerPoint slide flashed the carefully crowded page in question.
Coincidentally, that's also the number of pictures in “Facades,” an exhibit of Cunningham's photos now on view at Rosecliff on Bellevue Avenue. Organized by the New-York Historical Society, the show runs through March 1, staging Cunningham's photos within the mansion's fittingly baroque interiors.
Cunningham, who died in 2016, was no stranger to Newport - a familiarity made clear in “Working for Bill: In the Presence of Genius,” a presentation that accompanied the exhibit's opening on Sunday. Kurdewan sat beside designer and author Steven Stolman for a little over an hour, briefly covering “Facades” but speaking more fully of Cunningham the man, detailing his eccentricities and inner circle.
Together the pair evoked the memory of a disciplined, ultra-fastidious worker with a clairvoyance for trends - as well as an aesthetic appreciation for Newport's unique setting of East Coast refinement.
“Bill loved Newport like no place else. To him this was Disney World. It was truly Bill's happy place,” said Stolman, who appeared in Cunningham's long-running photo columns a few times in his own person, but also via gowns and clothing he'd designed.
“Young fella, you remind me of me,” Cunningham once told Stolman via phone after seeing the designer's work in Southampton, New York.
“I don't even know how he got that [phone] number,” Stolman said.
Some representative Cunningham headlines and captions - which he wrote himself - include “Newport nights,” Going Coach,” or “Last Dance,” each of which covered fashionable happenings in and around Newport, from Miramar to a formal tea event at Roger Williams University.
Despite Cunningham's high reputation among socialites and fashionistas, his photographic approach was basically democratic. He would bike around New York in his signature blue jacket, collecting evidence of repetitions, nascent fads or simply beautiful forms in the city's collective fashion sense as it strutted from block to block.
“Facades” is a notable departure from this documentary style, and instead opts for a guiding concept. Starting in 1968, and predating his job at the Times, Cunningham teamed up with his friend and fellow photographer Editta Sherman in a time-traveling venture that juxtaposed period clothing against New York buildings contemporaneous with the outfits pictured. A photo featuring a Napoleon-era muslin nightgown, for instance, is backgrounded by New York's City Hall, which started construction in 1803.
Like Cunningham's pictorials, “Facades” suggests an artist with mastery for structure.
“There's a rhythm to the page and a reason, and every photo has a meaning. This took incredible discipline,” Stolman mused over one slide of a typical Cunningham See FACADES, A4
New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, left, and Times designer John Kurdewan view photos at the Times offices. [PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN KURDEWAN]
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spread, then turned to Kurdewan. “And for you?”
“A lot of beer on Fridays,” Kurdewan said.
He and Cunningham shared a friendship that spilled beyond the workplace. The audience let go a collective “Aww” when Kurdewan revealed a picture of the time he surprised Cunningham with a new bike for his birthday.
“He didn't want to ride it at first cause he didn't want to get scratches on it,” Kurdewan said.
Kurdewan's mother sometimes supplied the contents for the photographer's Thanksgiving feasts.
“She made a whole turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes,” Kurdewan said.
As one might expect of such close friends, Cunningham often left Kurdewan voicemails. “For some reason I kept them all,” he said.
In one of these recorded hellos, Cunningham said: “Give me a call if you want to talk. Or don't call [if you don't want to talk.]” And so Cunningham himself briefly returned to Newport - or at least his voice did, broadcast over a speaker during the presentation, unexpectedly loud and lifelike as it bounced off Rosecliff's high and ornate ceilings.