You know the work of Bill Cunningham. The beloved New York Times photographer and Boston native chronicled the fabrics of humanity, his camera capturing how New York lived and breathed through the vitality of its fashion. When he died in 2016 at age 87, tributes poured out from across the country in celebration of the man’s unmatched ability to identify style in all its forms, no matter who was wearing the clothes.
But you don’t know Bill, say collaborator John Kurdewan and friend Steven Stolman; they hope to remedy that with a Sunday lecture at the iconic Rosecliff mansion in Newport, R.I., that marks the opening of “Bill Cunningham: Facades,” a new exhibit running there through March 1.
“Everybody thinks they knew him, but he was really quite a bit of a loner and had a very distinct inner circle,” says Stolman, speaking by phone. “I don’t even venture to say that I was a part of that, but at least I was allowed to stand at the gates and peer in.”
Stolman first encountered Cunningham — he was “this otherworldly creature in a blue coat, taking pictures,” recalls the designer and author — in Stolman’s early days showing collections in New York. They eventually connected over common ground and mutual admiration; Cunningham was once a milliner in Manhattan and Southampton, where Cunningham spotted one of Stolman’s dresses and, impressed, splashed the young designer’s work across his Times column. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last the rest of Cunningham’s life.
“He was a sweetheart,” recalls the designer, inspecting a framed postcard from Cunningham, sent after Stolman left fashion. The photographer’s handwriting is chicken-scratch; what he wrote, however, was well-worth decoding.“The things he would say to me,” says Stolman. “They still keep me going.”
After Cunningham’s death, Stolman was approached by Kurdewan — a New York Times production artist who worked closely with Cunningham for more than a decade — about the prospect of collaborating on a book about his working relationship with the photographer at the newspaper.
Sharing stories, Stolman and Kurdewan emerged with something more: a uniquely personal snapshot of a man almost exclusively known to the public through how he portrayed others. Sunday’s lecture — which the pair plan to expand into a book about the photographer — covers not just Cunningham’s life and legacy but the real character of the man behind the lens.
“People thought he lived this monklike existence, was incredibly frugal, and was a loner,” explains Stolman. “But he very carefully concocted this persona as a defense mechanism to keep people out.”
This in part stemmed from Cunningham’s commitment to authenticity in an often openly superficial scene, he adds. “Bill was about the drape of the dress and how it looked on the woman, the beauty of the silhouette,” says Stolman. “He couldn’t care less who was wearing it, unless they’d done great things for society at large.”
What’s special about their project, opines Stolman, is the personal knowledge needed to do more than feed into Cunningham’s myth.
In discussing their lives with Cunningham, the pair hope to do him justice, presenting an intimate portrait that emulates the photographer’s gift for looking beyond surface-level aesthetics.
“Our story is different because it’s so up close and personal,” he explains. “This is a memoir, with pictures.”
WORKING FOR BILL: IN THE PRESENCE OF GENIUS
Special preview opening and reception for “Bill Cunningham: Facades”
At Rosecliff, Newport, R.I., Sunday, 4 p.m. Exhibition runs through March 1. 401-847-1000, www.newportmansions.org
Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.