The corner that legendary New York Times street style photographer Bill Cunningham shot from, for almost forty years, was recently renamed in his honor. After a petition was started on Change.org, NYC has temporarily named the corner of 57th St and Fifth Ave. Bill Cunningham Corner. At Mayor Bill de Blasio’s request, the sign will stay up for a week, until a more permanent dedication can be determined.
The former Women’s Wear Daily journalist, milliner, and photog for New York Times columns On the Street and Evening Hours passed away on June 25th, aged 87, after suffering a stroke. I got a chance to talk with his muse, and longtime friend Patrick McDonald (The Dandy of New York). In one year, he was photographed over fifty times by Cunningham, and has had an entire page (below) dedicated to his style. We spoke about his relationship with the icon and how he ended up in the Bill Cunningham New York documentary, the impact he felt Bill Cunningham has made, and the legacy he leaves behind. (above pic by Bill Cunningham via The Guardian)
Paisley Dalton: When did you first meet Bill Cunningham?
Patrick McDonald: I think it was in 1986. I was working at Barney’s. It was at a fashion show for designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo. He was standing next to me after the show. Somebody told me who he was, and we talked for a minute. That was one of my first big shows. I sat in the second row. Yves Saint Laurent muse Marina Schiano was there…and I sat across from Lena Horne. She was fabulous! Bill was right there at the end of the runway. I was wondering who this photographer was that everybody knew. I had seen him previously at Barney’s. He would come and take pictures of some of the buyers. Later, after I stopped working at Barney’s, I started working for the designer Fabrice. That’s when I really got to know who Bill Cunningham was. I’d go to different functions with Fabrice, and we would see Bill. It was around that time that Bill started photographing me on the street.
There was always this misconception about me and Bill. New York Magazine wrote a story called The Muse of Bill Cunningham. That came out after I had been in the New York Times for many years, about sixteen years ago. By then, I had already been in the paper six or seven years before that. The first time I was in The Times was 1989. People used to think that I’d just go out onto the street because Bill was there. I never did that! I worked on 57th St, and lived on 56th St. It was my neighborhood.
Paisley: What was it like, the first time you saw yourself in Cunningham’s On The Street column, in the New York Times?
Patrick: The first time, it was a small, black and white photograph. I was walking down the street, wearing a black Kenzo trench coat. It was belted, with a flared skirt that went down to my ankles. I was feeling REAL! A year later, I was walking to Jane Stubbs’ gallery on the Upper East Side. She was having a party for fashion illustrator Joe Eula. That night, I had on a black, pinstriped Jean Paul Gaultier suit. It had high-waisted pants that came up right under my chest, with little suspenders to hold them up, and a zoot suit jacket. I wore that with white socks and black brogues, a striped t-shirt, and a S&M-style black leather Gaultier cap. Bill saw me, and he went crazy! Two Sundays after that night, I opened up the paper, and I was the center picture! After that, I saw him all the time. He’d be on that corner of 57th St at 8:30 in the morning, and again after lunch, and he’d take my picture. It was thrilling!
Paisley: Was Bill a fashion photographer, or a style photographer?
Patrick: For Bill, it was always about the clothes. He liked me…there was a definite connection. But, he didn’t photograph me because I was a nice guy. It was the clothes and the creativity. He was documenting the look a person had…whatever was the look of that time. He didn’t live in the past. I think he was the smartest person in fashion. That corner, the street, was Bill’s stage. He’s not the performer. The people he photographed were. In the Bill Cunningham New York documentary he said, “The streets are the best fashion show ever”.
Paisley: What would we be surprised to know about Bill?
Patrick: Hmmm…I know! When I would see him at fashion shows, I would watch him put the film in his camera. I’d never seen a photographer put film in his camera in between one model coming out and the next one…and he’d get the shot! Most photogs would have assistants do that. He always did it himself. And who uses film these days anyway?
Paisley: How were you approached to be part of the documentary?
Patrick: The producer Philip Gefter, who worked at the New York Times, called me. He said they were doing a docu about Bill Cunningham, and would I like to be in it, since I had been photographed by him so many times. Of course, I said yes! We shot my part at Rod Keenan’s studio. He’s the milliner that does my hats. I thought it was apropos because Bill was formerly a milliner. I talked about how wonderful he is, how sensitive. We were all supporting cast members to him. I went to the screening of it at the Museum of Modern art. Bill was there, but he didn’t stay. He got great pics of the people that were there for his column, then he left. That was Bill. Bill was about the clothes.