Platonically adored by the city’s leading ladies for decades, the flash of Mr. Cunningham’s camera is worth more than any cocktail hour compliment, a thousand-fold. While women have tripped over their trains, desperate to impress him for decades, Mr. Cunningham has remained unaffected, the dogged archivist of New York city’s ceaseless uptown carnival.
Yesterday evening, Mr. Cunningham’s frequent subjects congregated at the Waldorf-Astoria for a night in honor of their beloved photographer, who was receiving the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence.
Perched alone at a table, a black fur cape draped over his formidable knee, André Leon Talley arched his neck and surveyed the growing crowd of society peacocks. He was eager to speak about Mr. Cunningham. “He is what I call, the best of the old school world class personalities. He is more than just a photographer. He is a great gentlemen. He represents the best of what Americans can be,” Mr. Leon Talley said, with his lofty, precisely articulated intonation. “It’s not about the moment of bloggers or blogettes or fifteen minutes of fame,” he said, distain audibly dripping through his enunciation of the digi-sphere. “He has always been and will always be the person you see… He’s the same in Paris as he is in New York, and he is the same in New York as he would be in Paris.”
We wondered if one could describe Mr. Cunningham’s contribution to American fashion. Mr. Leon Talley thought for a moment before, with particular gusto, pronouncing the following: “One of the great chroniclers, as well as an oracle. A visual oracle, word oracle, word chronicler; master. American master.” He smiled, pleased with his poetical report.
We noticed Anna Wintour enter the room, swathed in a white fur wrap. We asked if she wouldn’t mind sharing a few thoughts on Mr. Cunningham. She sized us up. “Yes, in a minute,” she said, disappearing into the dense taiga of couture gowns as quickly as she had appeared.
The foyer was filling fast, and, between the ball gowns, flying bisoux and circulating crab cakes, there was little room for movement. Guests shuffled, as best they could, toward the bars with an unabating harmony of “pardon me, excuse me please, and so sorry could I scoot by.”
The guest of honor was barely visible in the crowd, an unceasing receiving line surrounding him and heaping praise upon him. In typical fashion, Mr. Cunningham did his best to recoil from the attention as politely as possible.
Chatting with friends at the bar, Mercedes Bass appeared particularly resplendent, in a full length feathered gown, a self-conscious swan queen. “Only for Bill. I never speak to the press,” Ms. Bass replied when we asked for a moment, bristling slightly.
She described her first impression of Bill Cunningham, some forty years ago. “I thought he was adorable and weird looking and I thought ‘Why is he doing this?’ and when he talked I thought he should be a professor. He has a wonderful command of the English language,” she remarked.
Others, however, could not quite recall when they first met the lensman. “It was many, many moons ago,” Sarah Jessica Parker professed, appearing in a blue Oscar de la Renta dress, a nod to Mr. Cunningham’s ubiquitous blue jacket. “But I knew who he was. I’ve always known who he was,” she said. Ms. Parker was glad Mr. Cunningham is finally being recognized for his decades of singular effort. “His work is deserving. Every now and then a deserving person is recognized,” she suggested, “and it’s such an enormous body of work! That’s what’s also so special, is that he doesn’t seem interested in stopping,” she said.
Mr. Cunningham had left his place in the eye of the storm and had, much to the delight of the guests, reprised his preferred position: behind the camera. As guests began to head into dinner, he snapped pictures of the meritorious few whose habits met his standards.
Inside, we spotted Ms. Wintour once again and re-approached. “Oh,” she said thinly. “You’re back.” She did, however, share her thoughts on Mr. Cunningham. “It seems he was practically the first person I met when I moved to New York,” she said, waxing nostalgic. “He’s so unbelievably authentic. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you. And if he does like something he’ll tell you. His eye is extraordinary,” she said.
Feeling bold, we asked if Mr. Cunningham had ever objected to one of her ensembles. While she did not sigh or murmur “Oh my dear child,” both were implied in her response. “You know he doesn’t like it because he just won’t take your picture,” she said, an imperious smile on her lips as she walked away.
Nearly everyone in the room had seen Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’s recent documentary, which paints an intimate portrait of the photographer’s life. We asked Lauren Santo Domingo if she felt uncomfortable peering into the life of such a discreet man. “Maybe for someone whose so private, but you know he captures so many people in private moments, that maybe it’s a fair trade off,” she offered.
His contribution to the world of fashion, Ms. Santo Domingo said, cannot be underestimated. “You know, I think at one point fashion could have been considered trivial, but now it really defines it defines our entire generation. So, the art that he’s been practicing has historical significance,” she explained. “He almost records it almost from an anthropological, sociological perspective.”
After baby spring lamb chops were served, Mr. Cunningham took the stage to accept his medal.
“Everyone in this room, that’s why I’m here! It’s because of you, not me!” he began, pointing out the until-then unspoken irony of the evening: the society photographer, being honored by society. “Do you realize what you mean to me?” he asked the crowd, his life’s work.
After dinner, we asked Sandy Weill why he thought Mr. Cunningham had been selected for the award. “I love him,” Mr. Weill responded. “We all should love him.”