In a happy accident on a Manhattan sidewalk in 1978, Bill Cunningham snapped photographs of Greta Garbo, oblivious to her identity, instead attracted to her distinct, nutria coat; countless photographs and over three decades later Cunningham’s keen eye has made him into a New York fashion institution. His weekly New York Times “Styles” section staples “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” are a bi-weekly digest of who’s who? in the Manhattan upper crust and what’s trending? on city streets. Prior to the Times, however, Cunningham found his two greatest muses, the city itself, and a close friend and fellow photographer, Editta Sherman, both of whom are the stars of the New-York Historical Society’s upcoming exhibition “Bill Cunningham: Façades.”
Born in Boston, Cunningham started in fashion with several jobs at the department store Bonwit Teller, which led him to New York. Before long he quit to set up shop as a milliner, which he worked several side jobs to pursue, and kept up even after being drafted into the army during the Korean War. Cunningham found his way into fashion magazines, working in editorial positions at Women’s Wear Daily and Details, and in 1966 he found his calling when a photographer friend gave him a camera and said, “Here, use it like a notebook.”
Editta Sherman was born in Philadelphia to a photographer father, who taught her to use a camera at a young age. She married young and began a family with her husband in California, then Washington, D.C., where they had a farm; a newspaper ad for artists spaces at Carnegie Hall drew the family to New York. Sherman and her family settled in Carnegie Towers, where studios had been set aside for artists at reasonable rates. She quickly made a name for herself as a portrait photographer, successfully capturing stars from broadway, hollywood, music, and literature, including Tyrone Power, Andy Warhol, and Elvis Presley. Unlike Cunningham’s preference for blending into the crowd while working, Sherman regularly dressed in flamboyant outfits that matched her vivacious, bold spirit, and became widely known as the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall.” She resided in the towers for 60 years, until 2010, when she and other remaining artists were pushed out in a landlord-tenant dispute; she died last November at the age of 101.
Cunningham also lived at Carnegie Towers—a home for generations of top-tier creatives, from Marlon Brando to Mark Twain—and in 1968 he began an eight-year book project, Façades, in collaboration with Sherman. For the project Sherman dressed in elaborate period costumes, some 200 years old, and posed dramatically all over the city, in front of Manhattan façades, from feats of architecture like the Guggenheim and Grand Central Station, to graffiti-covered subway cars. While Façades is long out of print, “Bill Cunningham: Façades,” revives Cunningham’s photographs and Sherman’s spirit.
Preview “Bill Cunningham: Façades” on Artsy.