Bill Cunningham's Playful Photographs of 1970s New York

A new exhibit shows the photographer's ability to link fashion with architecture during an especially turbulent time in the city's history.

Image
Bill Cunningham/New York Historical Society

Well before Bill Cunningham became famous for his candid fashion photographs taken around the streets of New York for the Times, he was already immersed in the city's buildings and streetscapes, showing them off in a playful series of images now on display at the New York Historical Society in an exhibit titled Bill Cunningham: Facades

Facades shows a project Cunningham worked on between 1968 and 1976 where, instead of capturing stylish strangers, he put models (most often his muse and fellow photographer, Editta Sherman) in vintage costumes while consciously using the city as a backdrop. Until June 15, the NYHS will be showing 80 of these images, which he donated to the Society right after completing the project. For context, they're displayed alongside reproduced architectural drawings already in the NYHS's collection. 

Cunningham, who moved to New York in 1948, looked for sites on his bicycle and searched thrift stores, auctions, and street fairs to find the costumes we see in Facades. The results are a fun perspective of the city during an especially turbulent time in its history, one where New York became synonymous with crime and urban dysfunction as much as fashion and culture. 

The clothes and the poses of his models tend to reflect the buildings behind them. Sherman is seen posing sternly while wearing a big, white hat as a nod to the Guggenheim. In front of St. Paul’s Chapel, where George Washington once worshipped, Cunningham photographs her in a Revolutionary War-era hat and powdered wig. While many photoessays of New York from the 1970s often convey despair (often through graffiti-covered subway cars) Cunningham embraces the neo-classical, the colonial, and the modern that surrounds him, even throwing in his own take on the dirty subway shot.

Unknown artist. Bill Cunningham Photographing Three Models at New York County Court House, ca.1968-76. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 
Left: Bill Cunningham, St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard (built ca. 1766-96), ca. 1968-76. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham. Right: Bill Cunningham, Grand Central Terminal (built ca. 1903-1913), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 
Left: Bill Cunningham, Bowery Savings Bank (built ca. 1920), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham. Right: Bill Cunningham, Club 21 (founded ca. 1920s; costume ca. 1940), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 
Bill Cunningham, Gothic bridge in Central Park (designed 1860), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 
Left: Bill Cunningham, Associated Press Building at Rockefeller Center (built ca. 1939), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham. Right: Bill Cunningham, Federal Hall (built ca. 1842, costume ca. 1910), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 
Bill Cunningham, Guggenheim Museum (built 1959), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham
Left: Bill Cunningham, Paris Theater (built 1947), ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham. Right: Bill Cunningham, General Motors Building, ca. 1968-1976. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 

Top image: Bill Cunningham, Editta Sherman on the Train to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, ca. 1972. Gelatin silver photograph. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bill Cunningham 

Bill Cunningham: Facades, is on view at the New York Historical Society from March 14 through June 15, 2014.

About the Author