“I let the street speak to me,” Bill Cunningham once wrote, but yesterday afternoon it was the lofty heights of Carnegie Hall speaking to, for, and about the legendary photographer. The memorial service for Cunningham, organized by The New York Times, where his work appeared since the ’70s, featured an audience peopled by all the New York characters he made his reputation shooting—impeccably groomed society matrons next to women of their exact age who preferred holey fishnets and leather bustiers.
It was, in fact, a faintly ironic place for the event to take place—Cunningham, whose quarters were famously as spartan as a Zen monk’s, lived for many decades in a tiny Carnegie Hall studio (bathroom down the hall) until building expansion forced him to move out late in life.
Now, on the stage where Tchaikovsky and Caruso once performed, stood a bicycle (possibly Cunningham’s own?) draped with the blue French worker’s jacket he always wore, and a lamppost reading “57th and 5th,” the corner where he could be found on so many days, hanging out for hours so as not to throw away his shot.
Perhaps the most touching among the speakers were John Kurdewan and Joanna Nikas, both of whom worked with Cunningham at the Times and were members of his surrogate family. They shared memories of Thanksgiving dinners and of receiving valentines on February 14; Kurdewan told of spending his workdays sorting through the 2,000 or so pictures Cunningham took every week. Nikas remembered the photographer telling her his credo: “Don’t fall into the traps of the rich! Don’t take money—that’s how they get you!” (There were, for the record, plenty of rich people in the audience and on the stage, lauding Cunningham’s friendship and his contributions to charitable causes.)
Cunningham’s niece spoke movingly of his authentic family background, when he was Uncle Bill, living the glamorous life in New York City and coming back to his hometown of Boston for occasional visits. “Bill would have absolutely hated this,” she said, and no doubt he would have much preferred lurking outside Carnegie with his camera.
But if a spectral Cunningham had wandered into the back of the hall during the memorial, I think that, sure, he would have been embarrassed—maybe even mortified—by the tributes, but there was a part of him that might have loved it, too. And I also think that he may have wondered why none of his favorite downtown “kids”—he often called people “kid” or “child” regardless of their age—was asked to speak from the podium. But if the program didn’t have room for even one impoverished “stunner,” what did it matter in the end? Cunningham’s great gift was to argue that no formal stage, no elevated dais, was needed if you were a fabulous New Yorker, living life by your own rules, dressing to the prompts of some deeply internal muse, and then trolling the city streets, waiting for your close-up.