On ViewThe New York Historical Society
March 14 – June 15, 2014
Bill Cunningham: Facades is at once, an elaborate game of dress-up and a thorough documentation of American fashion, running the gamut from colonial to contemporary styles. Initially a photo essay printed in paperback and published during the spring of 1978, the 88 gelatin prints donated by the photographer are now on display at the New York Historical Society in an exhibition of the same name. In the series, models pose theatrically—in both dress and sensibility—alongside the burgeoning, dynamic landscape of New York City. Spanning some 500 costumes and 1,900 shooting locations, Cunningham’s eight-year project was executed in collaboration with his principal subject, Editta Sherman—a fellow resident of Carnegie Hall studios and a successful portraitist in her own right.
Not long after Facades was published, Cunningham began taking impromptu photos of pedestrians, publishing them in his famous “On the Street” column in the New York Times. Though Sherman’s flamboyant period costume may seem like a departure from the off-the-cuff street style that has made Cunningham famous, curator Valerie Paley shows Facades as a precursor to the photographer’s later trend forecasting.
Despite Cunningham’s archival approach, his period photos are peppered with amusing anachronisms, from blinking traffic lights to curious tourists. In “Gothic Bridge in Central Park” ca. 1968-1976, Sherman bustles under the bridge in a hooped tartan skirt with a parasol in hand, leaving a puzzled jogger in her wake. These historical blemishes cement the relationship between fashion and architecture that Cunningham so clearly wants to emphasize. In another image, Sherman—as if posing for a silhouette portrait in profile—stands in front of Grand Central Terminal. She sports an ostentatious Gainsborough hat that matches, or perhaps rivals, Jules-Félix Coutan’s pedimental sculpture, “Glory of Commerce.” A generic glass-paneled sky skyscraper looms in the background, concealing any open space at the top of the frame. Here, contemporary architecture becomes a threatening obstruction, making the landmark appear precarious and antiquated—the terminal’s existence feels as ephemeral as a trend in ladies’ headwear.
In his “Guggenheim Museum,” Cunningham jumps forward 50 years in history, displaying similar interest in millinery (incidentally, he designed hats in the 1950’s under the name William J). Sherman appears arch, posing at eye-level with the camera with her hands on her hips. She wears a fur pillbox hat—a classic style that was introduced in medieval Belgium and has since been worn with slight variations. The geometry that both the accessory and building share is uncanny—the shape of this timeless bauble resurfaces in Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Modernist architecture. After all, Mr. Cunningham often reiterates, “the fashion show has always just been on the street.” Perhaps he meant not only us—urban dwellers—but the architecture that surrounds us.
As corsets loosen, we are further ushered into modernity. In one image, Sherman wears a felt pea coat and leather go-go boots in keeping with the trends of the late 1960s. Lunging to the opposite side of the frame, she and another model tower over Cunningham’s camera as they mimic the streamlined verticality of the General Motors Building, which was erected in 1968. Unlike the demure characters in Cunningham’s prewar period stills, these women embody the city’s power and commerce, not only in dress and haberdashery, but in pose and attitude. Their bodies and self-presentation seem to reflect what can only be described as a shift in identity.
There is an inescapable nostalgia to Facades. As we find ourselves in a less than certain present, we are left yearning for a not-so-distant past. Perhaps the photographer shares this sentiment with his viewers—in 2010, after a long-standing eviction battle, Cunningham, Sherman, and the few remaining renters were elbowed out of their Carnegie Hall studios. What remains certain is this: Facades continues to be a timeless treat, now and hopefully for years to come.