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FETING BILL CUNNINGHAM: A New York institution in his own right, Bill Cunningham was in his element at Thursday’s opening night party for his “Facades” exhibition at the New York Historical Society. Dressed in a shirt and tie instead of his signature sparrow blue-colored jacket, the photographer kept his Nikon around his neck as he greeted Mary McFadden, Cecilia Dean and fellow New York Times-ers like Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Jill Abramson. The fact that he was also celebrating his 85th birthday only added to the merriment. With a library full of admirers and three birthday cakes with Cunningham images, the lensman said this year’s party was like no other. “There is no comparison,” he said with a laugh.
Before the birthday candles were blown out, Cunningham led several guests on a gallery tour of the shots from the Sixties and Seventies of his muse Editta Sherman posed in high fashion in front of New York City’s architectural riches. “We just had so much fun. We acted like crazy kids. It was just an ongoing thing — there was no deadline,” he said.
“I’ve always been crazed about fashion — I mean a nutcase. And I was mad about architecture in Boston, and everywhere. I never had to go around the world — it was all right here in New York. I always took photographs of the outside, because I couldn’t gain entrance,” Cunningham said.
“Most everything was collected from jumble shops, street fairs and thrift shops,” he continued. “No one wanted the old clothes. There was only couture — there wasn’t any ready-to-wear. Balenciaga would be $3 in the thrift shop. The Courrèges, I think, was $2. Back in the Sixties, the kids were into mixing up hippie styles; I was just crazed about high fashion. The project was more or less finished when the prices started to go up.”
NYHS trustee chairwoman Pam Schafler noted that historic preservation and urban issues were “very much looming large” at that time, but Cunningham had the “ability to see beauty in the city at a time when there was a real sense of despair.”
After the program, McFadden recalled first hiring Cunningham in 1970, when she was a Vogue editor with a weekend assignment in Dallas. “Wherever around the world we wanted to go, he would come along, “ she said. “He never slept. I used to tell him, ‘You should get a tripod,’ as a joke. I don’t think he appreciated it.”
The man of the hour said he never has a favorite shot. “I don’t think that way. I just have fun whatever I’m doing. Otherwise, it’s not worth doing. No one pays us enough. And besides, money isn’t worth it. It’s much better to go out and do what you want,” he said.