The news of Bill Cunningham’s passing saddened me. Although I didn’t know him personally and I never became (though I dreamed to be) one of his subjects, I grieve his demise as a journalist whose integrity was deeply ingrained in him. The fashion world lost a hero, a luminary, and a celebrator of art in its realest sense.
Despite lamenting his death, I came to realize these nuggets of wisdom, celebrating his life:
1. You will be remembered for your ethics.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to distinguish which are commissioned, paid promotion, or real content. Many journalists get corrupted by the perks and often miss the moral code of the job. But in his 40 years in fashion photography, Bill stood by his ethics, valued his freedom, and worked independently. As he said in his 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom are the most expensive.”
He was an ascetic photographer and only focused on doing his job. Though he became well-known because of his craft, he still prefers to be a fly on the wall, invisible. He believed it is the only way he can do his job as a journalist: Documenting stories of various people without intrusion.
2. Tell it as it is.
Artistic pretensions had no place in Bill’s life. He didn’t really follow or hype any trends; he just documented what he thought was pretty. He didn’t care whether you’re famous or not—if you looked good, the camera will flash for you. Thus Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue says, “We all get dressed for Bill.”
3. Stay true to yourself.
Despite being a chronicler of street style fashion, Bill himself never really spruced up. He liked his blue jacket and wore it everywhere, regardless of the location or event. Whether he was pedaling around Manhattan or at a front row seat during fashion week, Bill stuck to an outfit that made him feel comfortable and his true self. With this I learned that being secure with one’s identity is an important trait to have. If you do not know who you are, who else will?
4. Passion is your life’s meaning.
Perhaps the most important thing that I learned from Bill is his drive. Without it, difficult work days would be unbearable to go through. If you do what you love, you will never get tired of it. Despite earning little and having the tiniest apartment, Bill was a cheerful, fulfilled, and content man because he found success in pursuing what he’s most passionate about.
5. There is no shame in moving on.
Bill chronicled New York fashion using an old and battered film Nikon camera. He never adapted to technology. While being a proponent of film photography is a feat itself, I think it’s a wasted opportunity for his skills and talents. Imagine if he had converted to digital photography. Not only could he had reached a wider audience, he could have also further improved himself. Learning from this, I now know that change, while daunting, can also be beneficial.
There may never be another Bill Cunningham on the rise. But I am hopeful that one day, someone would imbibe these lessons from him and become a better artist.