NYC's massive new immersive Bill Cunningham exhibition is a must-see event

The Times of Bill Cunningham showcases the late photographer's decades-spanning street photography.

Written by
André Wheeler
Photograph: Courtesy Sean Airhart

The late Bill Cunningham, infamous for gliding across Manhattan on his Biria bicycle and almost always wearing an unassuming, blue worker jacket, is largely considered one of fashion’s greatest street photographers. In a way, this adulation slightly diminishes Cunningham’s importance. Cunningham was also an astute journalist and documentarian. For nearly four decades, the Harvard University dropout captured New York’s ever-changing landscape and subcultures: Upper East Side grande dams, funky Lower East Side club-goers and women of the eighties speed-walking to work in sneakers and pleated skirts.  

The Times of Bill Cunningham, which opened during the in-person return of New York Fashion Week recently, is an immersive exhibition that advocates for a more nuanced approach to the late photographer’s work (Cunningham passed away in 2016, at the age of 87). Every visit to the show has the potential to be different. That’s because large-scale reproductions of Cunningham’s photographers flash on high-wattage screens and steadily change. One viewing you can be looking at a Studio 54-era photo of Diane Von Furstenberg sashaying out of a club, the next a stylish set of pedestrians stomping down the sidewalk in the 90s. Cunningham worked as a photographer for the New York Times and his work primarily appeared in his own column from 1989 until his passing. This medium may suggest Cunningham was simply moving from week to week, constrained by the innate nature of luck and happenstance that comes with street photography. But he had a particular eye. Paired with films, audio interviews, and artifacts such as Cunningham’s treasured bicycle and jacket, visitors will walk away with a deeper understanding of who Cunningham was as a photographer and, more importantly, a person. 

bill cunningham
Photograph: Courtesy Sean Airhart

The entire experience of The Times of Bill Cunningham unfolds over two floors and 18,000 square feet at Live Rocket Studios (a space that was formerly an Abercrombie & Fitch and, astonishingly, still carries hints of the shop’s distinctive fragrance smell). Cunningham’s photos do not simply hang on walls, as they might in a traditional museum. Each photo is rendered on a large screen and throughout there are eye-popping tech aspects created by the immersive tech-leaning design studio ESI Design. 

The exhibition was initially borne out of filmmaker Mark Bozek facing difficulties with his documentary, a years-long creative project, on Cunningham, due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year. “I went into a really dark hole because I was so on a roll and then, over a period of two hours, I was not,” Bozek said. He wanted to find a way to connect his documentary, which shares the same title as this exhibition, with audiences, but rejected the idea of putting it on a streaming service where “it’s just at the bottom of some algorithm.” Then, one day, he realized he could use the archive materials he gathered for the film for an exhibition.

What’s behind Bozek’s deep interest in Cunningham and his work? “I never did this movie or exhibition because he’s a fashion photographer,” Bozek said. “I did it because he’s an unbelievable character—he didn’t have a bathroom for 45 years and was the simple but beloved person on the planet. He was really interested in the discovery of what was going on the street.” 

The Times of Bill Cunningham runs through October 12, timed-entry tickets are $30, which you can purchase here 

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