02 June 2014

Bill Cunningham Facades

One of the great treasures of New York City is its architecture. Walk through any neighbourhood in the city, and you will encounter buildings and landmarks that reflect a range of architectural styles and time periods, all of them reminders of New York’s past.

In 1968 photographer Bill Cunningham, himself a New York treasure, began shooting a series in which he paired a New York building with a model, usually his great friend and muse, Editta Sherman, in clothing that matched the decade in which the building was constructed. Entitled Facades, the eight-year long project was done at a moment in the city’s history when it was just starting to grapple with issues of preservation.

"St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

The New York Historical Society's new exhibit, "Bill Cunningham: Facades," highlights images from this project including some of the 88 silver gelatin prints that Cunningham donated to the society back in 1976. Arranged in chronological order, they are a wonderful history lesson in the changing trends in both architecture and fashion.

"Apthorp Apartments, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

"Carnegie Mansion, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

Cunningham covered almost 200 years of history from the late 1700s to the 1950s and included many of the city’s great architectural landmarks—The Guggenheim Museum, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station—as well as numerous houses and apartment buildings. While some of the locations have since changed, it was fun spotting those that look the same. I didn't have to read the captions to identify Grove Street in a couple of images; I recognized the houses and private court that I’ve walked by countless times. At a quick glance, many of the images appear like they were taken in the decade alluded to by the clothes while in others anachronisms pop up like a modern day taxi cab.

"'21' Club, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

One of the most striking elements of the photos is the accuracy of the costumes. Cunningham went to great lengths to find authentic period items, searching through thrift shops and markets. Sometimes he struck gold: once he found a mob cap circa 1770 for $6; “the shop thought [it] was a doily.” And Editta, dubbed the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall," was his perfect model. In the photos she looks like she's really enjoying herself, smiling and striking a pose for the camera. Although she's fabulous in all of the outfits, she seems to have been particularly suited to the clothing of the Gilded Age; it's easy to picture her waltzing into a drawing room of an Edith Wharton novel with the latest gossip. 

"Paris Theater, New York City" Bill Cunningham (ca. 1968-76)

While the images may make you wistful for the past (I'm a sucker for an Art Deco building and an elegant gown) they are a fun juxtaposition of two New York obsessions—real estate and fashion—that Bill Cunningham captured perfectly.

"Bill Cunningham: Facades" is at the New York Historical Society through June 15, 2014. For more information, visit here.

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