Seeking Beauty with Bill Cunningham
“The only thing not to give up and to always believe is that ‘he who seeks beauty will find it’". Those are the closing thoughts Bill Cunningham, beloved photographer, delivered to the French Ministry of Culture after receiving the title Chevalier dans L’Ordre National des Arts et des Lettres in 2008 for his contributions to the fashion world.
Cunningham died of a stroke in 2016, but a secret memoir, Fashion Climbing, was discovered posthumously and was published earlier this week. I ordered it online today and can’t wait to get my hands on it. Sometimes the most public figures live the most private lives. What excites me about Fashion Climbing is the opportunity to learn what parts of himself Cunningham deliberately chose to keep hidden and what parts he chose to reveal after his death.
I first learned about Cunningham’s photography through the documentary Bill Cunningham New York , which was directed by Richard Press. I watched the film in March 2011 at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, DC (a theater know for playing independent, foreign & avant-garde movies). I had recently been diagnosed with post traumatic stress from my time in Iraq and Afghanistan and was in DC for treatment.
During those days, I spent four to eight hours every day walking around the city, learning how to acclimate back into life in the US. I had to get used to the hustle-and-bustle of a major US metropolis: the crowds, the sounds, and how to feel at ease in a homeland that felt foreign and imaginary. In juxtaposition, the E Street Cinema was a place that felt safe. A place that reminded me of the Midtown Arts Cinema that I loved in Atlanta. A place where I could be my old self again.
See The Humanity of the Moment
There are many reasons to love Bill Cunningham but, to me, his superpower is the way that he helps people to see beauty and the way that he makes people feel beautiful by challenging dominant conventions of what beauty is. Many women who’ve ever lived and worked in a war zone (and many other male dominated arenas) know what it’s like to be the object of the gaze, to be the blank canvas upon which desire is projected, to be the other. Bill Cunningham New York helped me see how one human being can look at another with reverence.
The film's portrayal of Cunningham also helped me see how photography can capture what Robert Frank calls “the humanity of the moment.” After my treatment for post-traumatic stress ended, I returned to Atlanta and volunteered as a tutor at a local middle school. All of the students at the school were refugees from various parts of the world. One young girl was from Afghanistan. Her family escaped when she was very young, before she had any memories of what life was like there. The only images she ever saw of her homeland were those of death and destruction.
I asked her, “Would you like to see pictures of what it’s like there?” and reached for my smartphone. She nodded "yes" and her eyes widened when she saw the pictures I had taken of the mountains, the fields, and the children. She touched the screen, choked back the tears, and said, “My country.”
A birth place has a powerful sway to it. It's absence is palpable, and so we will it into memory where it can live within reach, without end. To me, Afghanistan was a place that abruptly marked the end of one chapter of my life; to her, it was the place where her whole life began. By helping her to find the beauty that she sought, I was able to experience the humanity of the moment and move on.