Hi <<First Name>>,
When I prepared the 35th edition of The Highwater Weekly, I called it “Seek Beauty” without consciously remembering the quote from Bill Cunningham. It may have been a bit of cryptomnesia, or recalling a memory as an original thought, a concept I learned from Highwater Podcast guest Nick Briz. It makes perfect sense, and when I learned of Bill Cunningham’s passing last Saturday at the age of 87, I went back and re-watched Bill Cunningham’s New York, a loving and philosophical documentary portrait of the man who created street fashion photography.
Some of the most interesting and affirming aspects of Bill’s life include:
- His modest lifestyle. He wore the same blue smock every day, and lived in a studio above Carnegie Hall for decades, filled with file cabinets of photo negatives. He used a shared bedroom in the hall, and slept on a cot that he sometimes laid across the file cabinets.
- He started doing street fashion photography in his late 30s-early 40s after working as a hat designer.
- “I don’t work. I only know how to play every day.” He dedicated his work to a specific niche. He didn’t worry that no one would care about the clothes that regular people wore. He didn’t worry that no one else was doing it. Because of his earnest passion for this niche, we have endless street style articles, blogs and Instagram accounts.
- In the 80s he worked for the New York Times during the day (the “cage” as he put it) and helped launch Details Magazine at night. When asked why he never cashed any of the checks that Condé Nast wrote him for his work for Details Magazine, he said, "If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do. Don’t touch money. That’s the worse thing you can do.” Not everyone has the privilege to work on a project without thinking about money, but what Bill spoke to here is the importance of making sure that you have creative outlets that are purely for enjoyment and passion. Get paid for what you do, as he did for his work with the New York Times, but make sure you have some work that you can control. I mentioned in my Should You Work for Free? guide that if you do take a project on for free, control should be one of the tradeoffs.
I never realized until I watched the film again how much of what I think about creativity is because of Bill Cunningham. A life of creative stoicism isn’t for everyone, and I’m not advocating that or seeking it for myself. Guides are meant to guide our path and practice, no necessarily to be imitated. I consider Bill a spiritual guide for creatives, even more so after his passing.
Even if you don't want a monk-like existence for the sake of your craft, Bill's commitment to art for art's sake is eternally refreshing.
Rest Well Bill.