You know the old adage, “Everyone is replaceable”? While that may generally be true, it does not always apply. Case in point: the one, the only, the completely irreplaceable Bill Cunningham. If you want to know just how big a void Bill’s passing has left within the pages of The New York Times, all you have to do is open the Sunday Styles section each week.
Bill’s shoes are admittedly large ones to fill. He set the bar impossibly high with an oeuvre that he invented and single handedly spearheaded. His columns were must reads and in fact, they were probably the biggest reason many of us religiously checked out the paper each Sunday (I can attest to the fact that many of my friends have echoed this sentiment). He was the star attraction though he himself was an unwitting star. He was not after fame or fortune; he did what he did simply because he was passionate, fascinated by what he saw through his lens, and he had a desire to share it with the world.
I remember how strange (and rather disorienting) it was to open the Sunday paper back in June, and not see Bill’s lively, entertaining, informative, often inspiring On the Street and Evening Hours columns. It really felt as though something was missing. For several weeks, while Bill was in the hospital, his signature pages were filled in with various and sundry style related material and upon news of his passing, there was a question mark as to how the paper would decide to go forward, fully expecting that the powers that be at The New York Times would eventually find a way to substitute Bill’s columns with something different and compelling in their own right.
It was hardly surprising that they decided to continue on with both street fashion and party coverage given the obvious popularity of both, and since Bill’s work could not possibly be replicated, it would have to be done differently and of course, renamed. ‘On the Street’ is now ‘Street Style’ (or ‘Life as a Runway’ as it was called this past Sunday) and ‘Evening Hours’ has morphed into ‘City Scene’, which also appears in the Thursday Styles section. The problem is that the market place is now flooded with similar coverage and you’ve got to do it really well, do it better, and have a strong point of view in order to distinguish yourself as Bill did, thanks to his discerning eye, natural curiosity, and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history. And even though he had a special antenna for finding the eccentric and idiosyncratic, he appreciated and championed the ordinary. Quite frankly, one of his great talents was finding the extraordinary within the ordinary. In the pages now, it’s pretty much all about the ordinary. With all due respect, what I have seen thus far, has been rather banal, uninspiring, pedestrian, and more befitting your average, run of the mill blog than an iconic, New York based global newspaper, particularly where the street beat is concerned.
One of the biggest visual differences is the change in the layouts and format. Bill famously loved to use as many pictures as possible; this enabled him “to paint the picture of his story”, in the words of artist and longtime associate John Kurdewan, who was like a stepson to him. (John has also pointed out that each picture was meaningful to Bill). In fact, it was a well-documented fact that the Times photo department was always trying to get him to limit the number of images he used in one layout (but of course, to no avail).
In a bittersweet twist, the current spreads are now noticeably much less crowded, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately, the tightly edited number of images (which are now much larger than before) only magnify the banality of the content and worse; it often seems to be a great waste of newspaper space. If you check out the pictorial, “Look of summer: Little Black Sundress (It’s never too hot to wear black”), August 14, with 8 photos by Nina Westervelt) you will see what I mean. SEE ARTICLE There was really nothing that popped out at me, it was hardly inspiring, and there was not a stunner in the bunch. In addition, there was nothing that ‘smacked’ of New York. These pictures looked like they could have been taken anywhere in the country.
And then there was this past Sunday’s street pictorial, “Summer Style, While It Lasts” (“Life as a Runway”) written by Max Berlinger with photos by Alex Welsh. SEE ARTICLE More than half of an entire page was devoted to just six large pictures featuring a group of young men and women all with nice bodies, at a beach in Queens, wearing average, run of the mill beach ensembles: Land’s End bag, Nike shorts, etc. Yawn. Once again, there was nothing that was particularly memorable or eye catching, yet in each case, the pictures were accompanied with large captions that included the names, occupations, ages, and complete outfit descriptions (and prices) in bold letters, as though this was big news.
Of course, nobody ever said that what Bill did was easy, even though he made it look that way as he cranked out column after column, week after week without ever taking a vacation or a break. Where Bill was a one man show, it now “takes a village” (almost literally, as these pages are now produced by different editors and photographers each week). As Bill joked, (when I asked him about the possibility of a future ‘successor’ during the course of my Masters of Fashion Interview with him back in 2000), “Who would be crazy enough to stand out in the street for three weeks just to find the perfect woman?”
Who indeed? And as if to perfectly prove this point, about one month ago I was at the corner of 57th and 5th, standing in front of Bergdorf Goodman, checking out the Bill Cunningham retrospective window display with my sister when I noticed a young man with a camera taking my picture. I teasingly asked him if he aspired to be the ‘next’ Bill Cunningham. He smiled and introduced himself as Steffen Kaplan, a social media/visual consultant whose website is Spin It Social (www.spinitsocial.com). He told me had been a supervising photo editor at The New York Times from 1989- 2009 where he had a chance to work with Bill.
He has said that he was always was inspired by Bill’s tireless dedication, passion, and drive, and has described him as “one of the kindest, most humble, and passionate human beings around”. He called it an “honor to work around him and enjoy late night conversations about photography and life in The New York Times cafeteria” and he recalled how Bill always told him to “never ever stop taking pictures…and do what you love!” After Bill’s passing, he wanted to honor him by staking out his famous corner, and doing what he did, if only for an hour or two.
While he did find some interesting ‘subjects’, and wrote a blog about his experience SEE ARTICLE, he also admitted it was not exactly easy, and he could only imagine how grueling it would be to do this every day and find enough great material to put together an enticing column week after week. But of course, for Bill, it was anything but grueling and it never seemed like work. It was his love, his passion, and his life blood, up until the very end.
- Marilyn Kirschner