x

Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Remembering Bill Cunningham: National photo editor shares her memories

The photo is of me (Liz Claus) and my mother (Dorothy Claus), walking down Fifth Avenue sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s. We had just had lunch at Henri Bendel - one of our favourite spots, when Bill Cunningham jumped out and snapped the pic. I was surprised, but Mom saw him right away. When I saw him in the office later, he clipped the negative (there was only one frame), and gave it to me. When I look at that photo now, I see how it's a quintessential Bill Cunningham photo. I was unaware at the time that we were dressed so similarly but in opposite colours; same bag, too! I'm sure Bill would have remembered exactly what year the photo was taken. Photo by Bill Cunningham
The photo is of me (Liz Claus) and my mother (Dorothy Claus), walking down Fifth Avenue sometime in the late 1980s or early 90s. We had just had lunch at Henri Bendel - one of our favourite spots, when Bill Cunningham jumped out and snapped the pic. I was surprised, but Mom saw him right away. When I saw him in the office later, he clipped the negative (there was only one frame), and gave it to me. When I look at that photo now, I see how it's a quintessential Bill Cunningham photo. I was unaware at the time that we were dressed so similarly but in opposite colours; same bag, too! I'm sure Bill would have remembered exactly what year the photo was taken. Photo by Bill Cunningham

I started my career in journalism working in The New York Times photo lab in December 1986 and was there until I moved to the photo desk sometime in 1991. Nearly everyone I know at the Times has their own personal and special memories of the fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. Here are some of mine.

It seemed that Bill always took special care of the folks in the lab. He would come back from the Paris and Milan fashion shows with bags of film – up to 200-plus rolls – and pay the lab techs $1 per roll to process and $1 to make a contact sheet.

Of course, at first this seemed like a gravy train for a poor 25-year-old who had just arrived in NYC, but later I felt guilty for taking the money. After a while, when I tried to refuse payment, I’d find the money stuffed into the top of my bag.

I was on the night shift and remember watching Bill look at his negatives after society parties. He knew who everyone was, who they were wearing, and who they had worn the year before and the year before that. He knew who designed a garment and what year it was designed – just by looking at the negative.

He could tell you when he had photographed that person or designer, whether it was 40 years ago or yesterday. He would frequently talk about the cut or line of a dress and give examples of how it was used by different designers over the years. I’ve never been interested in fashion or the fashion world, but Bill somehow made me want to know more. I wish I had paid more attention. He was so humble about it, too.

Since I was a lab technician, a fair amount of time was spent around the light table with photographers. One night I remember chatting with Bill about an upcoming visit from my mother. Wednesday and Thursday were my days off and my mom would regularly ride the train from Philadelphia to NYC. We would go to lunch at a fancy restaurant and a matinée at the theatre. My job was to pick up the tickets and make restaurant reservations. This particular day I was stressing out over making reservations at Le Cirque (before it became Le Cirque 2000). I was venting my frustration at trying to get a reservation. Whenever I called I always got the same answer – it would be months – and that was when someone actually answered the phone.

Bill then said, “What day is your mother coming? I might be able to help because my friend Suzette does flowers for them.” I don’t remember how far in advance I was trying to plan – knowing me, it wasn’t long – but I gave him the date.

The very next day, Bill said: “It’s all set. Just give them your name and there will be a table for you.”

Not really believing him, I thanked him and that was that. Looking back, I was very naive about who Bill was. To me, he was just a friendly old guy who paid me to process his extra film.

When the day came for our luncheon, we walked in and we were immediately fawned over, given the best seat in the house, a message from the chef, and a special little bouquet of flowers from Suzette. The maître d told me they were happy to do “anything for Billy and Suzette”.

The meal was superb but all I could think of was how great it was that Bill had done this for me. The next time I saw him I tried to say thank you but he didn’t want anything to do with it.

“Oh, it was nothing,” he said dismissively in his humble and shy way. I couldn’t bring it up in conversation again because it was in the past and done with – he didn’t feel the need to talk about it again.

That was Bill. I’ll never forget the kindness and the sweetness he showed a young, naive girl during her first years in a strange new city. I also loved being called “child” when I bumped into him – as a fiftysomething – on my last visit to the Times in 2015. He was a true gentleman and will be greatly missed.

Bill Cunningham was born on March 12, 1929, and died on June 25, 2016

artslife@thenational.ae