Bill Cunningham: Facades

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Berry Stein

Published on April 15, 2014

  • Museum: New York Historical Society

  • Visit Date: April, 2014

  • Description:

    New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has chronicled in vogue New Yorkers for over fifty years, capturing often-glamorous subjects through his signature spontaneous street-style. An exhibit at the New York Historical Society presents photographs from his eight-year project Facades, an anthropological study of both period fashion spanning three centuries, and an era during which historic preservation of architectural landmarks in New York became a critical cultural and political issue.

    Now 85-years-old, Cunningham is recognized as one of the most influential authorities of style and society of his time. His technique has been simple: he rides around Manhattan on his Schwinn bicycle, snapping chic and striking pedestrians that he sees on their way to work, or perhaps a society gala. One could argue that the body of work produced during his career is the most comprehensive encapsulation of New York’s ever-evolving style to date. That said, in 1968, long before he had a weekly column in the New York Times, Cunningham embarked on an eight-year project to document various neighborhoods and buildings in New York, matched with an exuberantly posed woman dressed in elaborate period costumes that neatly reflect the period of the architecture.
    The series of photographs from this project is on display at the New York Historical Society in a charming, yet subtly compelling exhibit titled, Bill Cunningham: Facades. As one walks through each gallery of the exhibit, there is a clear, richly woven chronological narrative of the histories of architecture and fashion in New York, as interpreted by the photographer. The photographs range in architectural periods from the late 18th century to the mid-20th century, and feature Cunningham’s friend, neighbor at Carnegie Hall Studios, and fellow photographer Editta Sherman.

    At first glance, the photographs of Sherman, a striking and playful model posed in 18th-, 19th-, and 20th century costumes, are purely for fun and fashion. Looking deeper it becomes apparent that Cunningham’s message is more profound: as he artfully presents the evolving relationship between architecture and fashion in New York, he is undeniably at the forefront of advocating for the preservation of the city’s architectural heritage. As curator Dr. Valerie Paley describes, Cunningham “captured the spirit of decaying or neglected neighborhoods, bathing them in a new light by contextualizing the facades with the striking fashions contemporary with their times.” Thus, I find that the true subjects of the photographic series are the old yet familiar neighborhoods, and dilapidated buildings of New York.

    During the years in which Cunningham produced the Facades project, New York City was in a municipal financial crisis, and many of the city’s most iconic buildings such as the old Penn Station, the Garden at Madison Square, the City Hall Post office and Colonnade Row were demolished due to the crushing force of rising property values. Wall text in the exhibit notes, “Cunningham’s choices of locations – both the iconic along with the seemingly ordinary – reflected the more democratic view of preservation, and recognized the aesthetic and historic value of buildings that had become outdated to some and all-but-invisible to others.”

    The poignancy of Cunningham’s intent as an artist and civilian of New York is deeply affective. The photographs in Bill Cunningham: Facades represent a very specific period in New York, a time when the city experienced somewhat of an identity crisis, not knowing how to salvage and preserve the past while simultaneously meeting the needs of the present. I found this exhibit to be particularly thought provoking in terms of looking closely at the ways that New York City addresses its constantly changing cultural, social, and economic landscape. What will the representation of life in the early twenty-first century in New York look like in fifty to one hundred years from now? I wonder what will be different, and what will be the same.

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