Beauty’s there if you’ll look

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

He who seeks beauty will find it.

Funny how the words struck me recently as I sat on our couch and watched a documentary — not something I can admit I’ve said a lot, mind you. I am not much for documentaries, but for some reason this particular one sparked my interest as I scrolled through my choices on Netflix early on this Saturday morning. I bit. And after only a few minutes, I was hooked.

It is the story of a man who lives and works in New York. Bill Cunningham is his name. Over 80 years old, he works for the New York Times and, quite simply put, is one of the most endearing personalities I think I have ever seen. Quiet. Modest. Intelligent. Shy. Incredible work ethic. Humble to the nth degree. Summed up — a rare bird.

A photographer by trade, Bill Cunningham spends his days riding his bicycle through the streets of New York looking for fashion. He doesn’t care who you are and he doesn’t seek out celebrities. He has never owned a television. He seeks only one thing — beauty. But not in faces or bodies — in what they wear.

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But it’s not about the fashion, really. Not for me. This movie was more about the person. A raw glimpse into the life of a man who lives simply, but doesn’t have to. Who gives everything and expects nothing in return. Who has had the opportunity to make money and lots of it, but chose to never cash the check. Who chooses a $3 sausage and egg biscuit over the finest dining. Who sees every single day as an opportunity, a privilege to get to go out and do once again something he truly loves. No fanfare. No expectations of grandeur or thanks. He does his work for the right reasons — because it gives him joy.

Bill Cunningham was of the last residents of Carnegie Hall, having lived there for some 50 years. He had no kitchen, a public bathroom down the hall, and slept in his tiny living space among books and file cabinets filled with negatives of every photo he has ever taken. What clothing he has hangs on three or four hangers. He shoots 35mm film and has it developed at a corner store. He rides a bicycle everywhere he goes.

I remember my father telling me when I was young that the people who drive expensive cars or live in flashy houses or talk about how successful they are aren’t the ones who truly have wealth. The wealthiest people are ones you would never notice on the street, who don’t wear their importance on their sleeve.

I was reminded of this when, in the documentary, Bill Cunningham stood outside the opening of a prestigious Paris fashion show. Wearing his ordinary trousers and trademark blue cotton jacket like the ones street workers wear (because they have great pockets, he says) he stood there surrounded by people in their glamorous clothes with his simple camera around his neck telling the person at the door that he was supposed to be inside. They wouldn’t let him in.

Until someone recognized him.

“This is the most important person in the world,” the man said and took Bill Cunningham by the arm and led him inside, past all of the others, to his designated seat on the very front row. It was fantastic.

Bill Cunningham received an award for his incredible work. He didn’t think he should be honored, but was gracious. Instead of mingling with guests and enjoying cocktails at the reception in his honor, he worked. Taking photos. Wearing his trademark blue cotton jacket with the great pockets.

He has never seen his documentary. At its red carpet debut, he stood outside and took photographs of the people arriving. But not everyone. Only the ones wearing interesting clothes.

He who seeks beauty will find it, Bill Cunningham says. I found beauty early on a Saturday morning in the story of this lovely man. A rare bird. A must see.

Contact columnist Mandy Flynn at flyn1862@bellsouth.net.