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Newsletter: Bill & Vivian — 2 Photographers, As Seen Through Their Images

This is #DoubleFeature, in which Harsh Pareek shares two recommendations for the price of none. Here: Bill Cunningham In New York and Finding Vivian Maeir.

Newsletter: Bill & Vivian — 2 Photographers, As Seen Through Their Images
Bill Cunningham In New York

Last Updated: 03.53 PM, Feb 02, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on February 1, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


BACK IN THE MID-90s, when I first got my hands on a camera (a point-and-shoot Kodak, borrowed for a family holiday), I thought I would puke from all the excitement. The compact design, the sleek touch, the mechanical sounds, the rituals with the film roll. To my six-year-old self, it might as well have been a time machine. In a sense, it was.

It would be almost a decade and a half before I would (re)discover my love for photography, and eventually get hold of a “real” camera. In the years that followed, little by little, I would pick up on the art form — the technical aspects, the history, and the works of its trailblazers. One of the more memorable of such discoveries would be Bill Cunningham's work, which would come to me around the same time the Arts world would be collectively discovering the works of Vivian Maier.

Not only were their photographs captivating (and educational), the unconventional stories of their lives — what little one can hope to know of someone else's life, that is — were every bit as fascinating, transcending the spheres of their chosen craft.

Two documentaries, Bill Cunningham New York and Finding Vivian Maier, explore their remarkable journeys, and the legacies they leave behind.

Finding Vivian Maier, 2013
Finding Vivian Maier, 2013

TO WATCH an 80-year-old Bill Cunningham run across busy streets in his signature blue jacket, snapping photos of intriguingly attired celebrities and everyday New Yorkers, is to witness someone be one with their element.

Known as much for his work as for his exuberance, the veteran New York Times photographer had been a chronicler of the fashion trends, street style and high-society charity galas for decades when director Richard Press decided to turn the lens on him for his 2010 documentary feature.

The film, a profile of the photographer, attempts to not just give a comprehensive picture of Cunningham's professional work, but also provide a glimpse into his solitary personal life, and philosophy on fashion and being.

Living alone at the Carnegie Hall building in a tiny apartment filled with little else than boxes of his photographs, and riding on his bicycle across Manhattan, Cunningham's friends, colleagues and subjects describe his tireless dedication to the trade, his dynamic photography style and the little regard he had for cultural and social hierarchies. For him, what mattered more than anything perhaps was how an individual was dressed, regardless of their standing in the city. As he puts it, “I'm not interested in celebrities with their free dresses, I'm interested in clothes.”

Naturally, Cunningham would also become an anthropologist of sorts, recording the ever shifting social, political and cultural landscape of the city, always on a lookout for the unusual, the extraordinary.

In 2016, a few years after the documentary was released, Cunningham passed away at the age of 87. Today, the film remains an exhilarating and life-affirming reminder of one man's determined pursuit of an art form, without ever losing touch with his grounded convictions and cheery warm-heartedness.


IN 2007, John Maloof bought thousands of film negatives and prints, home movies and audio tape interviews, at a storage space auction in Chicago, belonging to one Vivian Maier. His discovery would soon create a level of excitement rarely seen in the world of photography, and infiltrate the mainstream. But the photographer, who was never published during her lifetime, remained a mystery.

Maloof, along with director Charlie Siskel, set out to tell her story with their 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

Born in 1926, Maier was a French-American woman who worked most of her life as a nanny and housekeeper to a multitude of Chicago families. Outside of her day job, she was a prolific street photographer, who took more than 1,50,000 photographs over the course of her life. Working primarily with a Rolleiflex camera, her subjects mostly comprised the people and architecture of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, as well as other places she travelled and photographed worldwide, like Manila, Bangkok, Beijing, Egypt, and Italy. She was also an intensely private person who kept most of her work hidden.

In the documentary, we hear from some of the now grown children Maier had cared for as a nanny recall their time with her, as the filmmakers try to piece together the story of her life and personality. In the process, we are confronted with difficult questions, at times less to do with Maier in particular, and more about the intricacies of our private lives and passions.

Maier died in 2009 at the age of 83. Many details of her life — both inner and where she did interact with the world — remain unknown. And perhaps that's how she meant it to be.

Meanwhile, the incredible body of work she left behind continues to capture the imagination of millions across the world.

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