Guest Exhibit Review: Bill Cunningham’s Facades at New York Historical Society

 

Currently on view at the New York Historical Society (through June 15, 2014), “Bill Cunningham: Facades” is a photography show from the now iconic photographer and the results of an eight-year project to document the architectural riches and fashion history of New York City which pairs models in period costumes with historic settings. Nadine Stewart, Fashion Historian, has graciously provided a review here for those not able to see the exhibit in person, or for those looking for some analysis of the show. Thanks again to Nadine!

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you should do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”

— Bill Cunningham

Today Bill Cunningham is an icon. Readers of the New York Times can follow his analysis of street styles and social life every week. He was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary. He’s followed fashion tirelessly both in New York and abroad for 35 years. When he began, it was a lonely quest. Now bloggers copy his work every day. None of them have the knowledge or wit to equal him.

“Facades” covers an early period in Cunningham’s career. It’s a smaller, quieter exhibit across the park from the glory of the Charles James exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet its images resonate just as strongly. The pictures were taken in the late 1960s when he was transitioning to his special brand of fashion photography from earlier work as a milliner and fashion journalist.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City, ca. 1968-1976 By Bill Cunningham, Gelatin silver photograph, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham

Beginning in 1968, Cunningham shot a series of 88 gelatin silver prints that matched iconic New York architecture with historic fashions–a range that stretches from the eighteenth century to the 1950s. His model for this eight year project was his neighbor in the Carnegie Hall Artist Studios, Editta Sherman, a fellow photographer who became his partner and muse. Together they scoured thrift shops, flea markets and auctions for vintage clothing. One find, later photographed in front of St Paul’s Chapel, was an eighteenth century man’s coat and vest scrounged for a secondhand shop on Ninth Avenue. In the end, they used 500 outfits at 1800 locations.

In 1968, New York was considered a decaying hulk. Historic buildings like Penn Station were being torn down to make way for an uncertain new future. Preserving the past was still being debated. Some city planners felt that the only way for the city to develop was to cut its link with the past and tear down older buildings. Cunningham clearly disagreed with this approach, a feeling that comes through in the loving way he photographs each building, finding angles a less informed observer would have missed. Editta was the perfect muse for this project. A striking image of Editta in a graffiti-covered subway car dressed in Edwardian splendor, sums up the grittiness of the time, but Editta sits proudly, no giving in to the squalor around her. Her presence is powerful as it is in every picture. She modeled with flair and style—a 56 year old muse who threw herself into each pose whether she was portraying a Victorian grande dame, a flapper from the 1920s, or a swinging mini-skirted girl from the 1960s. Cunningham used his background as a milliner to provide her with hats that punctuate the picture and echo the architecture in the background—like the towering fur toque Editta wears in a close-up in front of the Guggenheim.

Though the pictures were taken 37 years ago, they show a clear relationship between architecture and fashion that informs us today. They are not simply historical dress-up. Each shot shows an understanding and a love of the city. They have a freshness that contemporary fashion photography with its Photoshopped perfection often lacks.

Editta Sherman died in 2013 after she and Cunningham were evicted from Carnegie Hall, their home of 60 years. This exhibit gives us a vision broader than fashion history or iconic New York architecture. It gives us a sense of what type of spirit it takes to survive in a dystopian time.

–Nadine L. Stewart

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