In the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, New York City’s beloved fashion photographer received an award from the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France and said, “It’s not the celebrity and not the spectacle. It’s as true today as it ever was: he who seeks beauty will find it.” It’s one of the few moments in the film when Bill’s ebullient personality cracks to reveal a wide-open heart filled with both deep love and wonder for the world. At that point, you’re listening to less a lecture on fashion and more his life’s thesis—the open-hearted pursuit of beauty.
My only experience of Bill is watching the recent documentary and a few interviews, but even with that limited connection, I’ve found myself thinking about him—even grieving his recent death. It’s not intimacy per se, but I have a real sense of gratitude for the choices he made to pursue his work. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Bill’s life as a photographer is a model of that kind of purity, and reflecting on his simple yet consistent commitments can help with our own pursuit of beauty.
He committed himself to his creative work. As soon as Bill discovered photography, he documented New York City for the rest of his life. Sometimes working two jobs at a time, he always found a way to be on streets taking pictures, “letting the streets speak to him.” It was a commitment that shaped his personal life (he never married) and even his apartment. A quick glance at the rows of file cabinets crowding every corner of his apartment—a priceless photographic archive of New York—and you can see how his life and work were fully integrated.
He lived simply. Bill rode bicycles all over the city, and the fact that they were often stolen didn’t matter to him; the tool was a means to an end, and if it needed replacing he would replace it. It’s an open-handed approach to possessions that carried over into his whole life. He seemed genuinely uninterested in accumulating wealth—it was a distraction to him, and choosing simplicity emerged less from a place of moralistic self-denial and more the need to remove whatever obstacles kept him from his work.
He separated himself from those with power and influence. Bill distinguished himself from the socialites he photographed by wearing a bright blue worker’s coat and eating before events instead of accepting the wine and lavish gifts offered him. And it wasn’t only his dress that separated him from others—at times he refused payment for his work, preferring creative freedom instead: “Money’s the cheapest thing; liberty and freedom is the most expensive!” These clear visible markers signified the purpose of his work. By resisting the social (or financial) hierarchy, he was free to work without deference to the expectations of others.
He treated everyone—regardless of status—with compassion. Giving up a sense of entitlement overflowed into a compassionate interest in every person around him. In scene after scene in the film, he spends just as much time laughing with people on the street as a wealthy museum donor; he’s fascinated by people and they way they clothe themselves whether that’s a homeless person or a runway model.
When I look at these choices, Bill seems almost like a priest, and in the film one friend even called him a “fashion deity.” Certainly, he wouldn’t want that kind of attention, and it would be irresponsible to canonize him. But think about Pope Francis or His Holiness the Dalai Lama or any celebrity with the reputation of being “down to earth”—they all share the same open-handed relationship to their own power and a genuine interest in others, and Bill’s work as a photographer is much closer to saints than the paparazzi. G. K. Chesterton describes a similar egalitarian quality in St. Francis of Assisi:
“There was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardino was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.
Free from selfishness, St. Francis could engage others not as means of accumulating wealth and status, but loved persons qua persons. This kind of openness to others is transformative, and as a photographer, Bill looked through his lens with this same love—and that’s inspiring no matter what our creative work might be.