Life as Cun­ning­ham’s right-hand man

Kur­de­wan worked with pho­tog­ra­pher at New York Times

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - STYLE - By Bill Da­ley wda­[email protected]­bune.com Twit­ter @bill­da­ley

Bill Cun­ning­ham was the leg­endary New York Times pho­tog­ra­pher whose pic­tures of street fash­ion and high so­ci­ety made him a Big Ap­ple icon long be­fore he died in 2016 at age 87. John Kur­de­wan, a New York Times pro­duc­tion artist, worked closely with Cun­ning­ham as his as­sis­tant turned right-hand man, de­sign­ing his photo-packed “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” pages in the Sun­day Times. In so do­ing, the pair be­came not just col­leagues, but close friends.

Kur­de­wan was in Chicago ear­lier this month for an ap­pear­ance at The Arts Club of Chicago, where he talked about Cun­ning­ham’s life and work. He was teamed with Steven Stol­man, au­thor of five books, in­clud­ing the just-pub­lished “Heirloom Houses: The Ar­chi­tec­ture of Wade Weiss­man” (Gibbs Smith, $50). The two were, in Stol­man’s words, con­duct­ing a “test drive” of telling the Cun­ning­ham story. They are now con­sid­er­ing writ­ing a book about Cun­ning­ham and his vi­sion.

“The book we are plan­ning is what Steven and I hope will be an hon­est and lov­ing por­trait of my men­tor and friend,” Kur­de­wan ex­plained in an email. “A true in­sider’s look at Bill’s life, his work, his vi­sion, his val­ues and his legacy. Bill was a teacher, and we want to try to pass along his lessons in the way that he would have wanted.”

Cun­ning­ham is cer­tainly hav­ing a mo­ment of late. His rec­ol­lec­tions of a Bos­ton child­hood, his time as a Man­hat­tan milliner known as “Wil­liam J.” and lessons learned as a fash­ion jour­nal­ist work­ing for, among other out­lets, the Chicago Tri­bune are the stuff of a new post­hu­mous mem­oir, “Fash­ion Climb­ing” (Pen­guin Press, $27. His 40-year as­so­ci­a­tion with The New York Times is the fo­cus of a de­light­ful chil­dren’s book ti­tled “Polka Dot Pa­rade” (Lit­tle Bee Books, $17.99). He was the sub­ject of a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the New York His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, ti­tled “Cel­e­brat­ing Bill Cun­ning­ham,” which in­cluded items do­nated by Kur­de­wan.

The Arts Club au­di­ence was cer­tainly pay­ing at­ten­tion as Stol­man and Kur­de­wan ex­plored Cun­ning­ham’s life and work with dozens of pho­to­graphic slides. At one point, there was a col­lec­tive “ooh” of ap­pre­ci­a­tion from the crowd when one of Cun­ning­ham’s hats, a de­sign Stol­man likened to a “ca­su­ally folded nap­kin,” flashed on the screen.

Kur­de­wan is a tall man with an easy smile. In a nod to Cun­ning­ham, whose sig­na­ture look fea­tured a blue French work jacket, he wore a deep blue shirt to the Arts Club event.

Faced with two choices as a young man, work­ing for New Jersey’s As­bury Park Press or de­liv­er­ing soda for Coca-Cola, Kur­de­wan chose the news­pa­per be­cause it was in his home­town of Nep­tune, N.J. He started out in the photo en­grav­ing depart­ment. In 1997, Kur­de­wan moved to The New York Times, where he worked on pho­to­graphs for all the de­part­ments. Then he was teamed up with Cun­ning­ham.

“It was a goof chance,” Kur­de­wan told the Arts Club au­di­ence. Cun­ning­ham, who was known as the “king of subs” for his pen­chant of switch­ing out pho­to­graphs, was spar­ring with the art direc­tors at the Times over his pages.

“I told them I was not an art di­rec­tor,” Kur­de­wan re­called. “They told me not to worry. ‘Come in, build the page with him two hours a day, don’t worry.” As Cun­ning­ham grew more com­fort­able with Kur­de­wan, that one day grew to two days, then three days and then four days un­til “it pro­gressed into this mon­ster we cre­ated,” Kur­de­wan said.

“They came to me and said, ‘Limit him to about 20 pho­tos,’ ” Kur­de­wan re­called. “I said, ‘Bill, they told me to tell you 25 pho­tos.’ ‘Who?’ I said, ‘They did. The man­agers.’ ‘Oh, all right, we’ll do 35 to­day.’ ”

Eighty-two pho­tos was the most they ever ar­ranged on one page, Kur­de­wan said.

“Bill made sure the type was this big,” he re­called min­i­miz­ing the size. “The pho­tos were telling the story.”

Al­though Cun­ning­ham’s big break for the Times was a pho­to­graph of the cam­era-shy movie star Greta Garbo, he didn’t rec­og­nize Garbo for who she was. He loved her coat, Kur­de­wan said.

“When Bill pho­tographed peo­ple he didn’t look at the faces,” Kur­de­wan said. “He looked at how the dress was.”

Yet, Cun­ning­ham wouldn’t al­low an un­flat­ter­ing photo of any­one to be pub­lished, al­though Kur­de­wan noted the pho­tog­ra­pher also loved catch­ing the fash­ion­able try­ing to jump pud­dles in the street, not al­ways suc­cess­fully.

If pud­dle jump­ing was one of Cun­ning­ham’s sig­na­tures, so was pho­tograph­ing so­ci­ety women wear­ing the iden­ti­cal dress. “And he could talk them into stand­ing next to each other with­out killing each other,” Kur­de­wan added.

An­other thing Cun­ning­ham liked to do was present a series of pho­to­graphs high­light­ing a spe­cific color or pat­tern.

“He loved show­ing repet­i­tive trends,” Stol­man said. “He pos­sessed an ex­tremely acute sense of dis­cov­er­ing what would be in fash­ion years be­fore ev­ery­one.”

Kur­de­wan’s af­fec­tion and re­spect for Cun­ning­ham, whom he de­scribed in an In­sta­gram video as “his clos­est friend,” is ev­i­dent as he shares his mem­o­ries. One day, he gave Cun­ning­ham a chop­stick, so he could use that in­stead of a fin­ger on the com­puter screen to show where a photo should be placed. Cun­ning­ham, he added, wielded that chop­stick like a con­duc­tor.

Cun­ning­ham fa­mously rode around the streets of New York City on a bi­cy­cle tak­ing his pho­tos. Kur­de­wan bought Cun­ning­ham his very first brand-new bi­cy­cle when the pho­tog­ra­pher turned 85.

“He came to me and said, ‘I never had a new bike in my whole en­tire life. I’ll get it scratched.’ I’m like, ‘Bill, this is New York City. Of course you’ll get it scratched.’ He had a bike lock that, I swear you could tow a car with, wrapped around it,” Kur­de­wan re­called.

Cun­ning­ham taught him about fash­ion but had other lessons for his as­sis­tant as well: “There’s a peck­ing or­der,” Kur­de­wan said. It was cru­cial, he added, to treat peo­ple with kind­ness be­cause you never know who they are. And if one treats oth­ers with re­spect, that re­spect will be re­turned, he said.

“And he taught me how to see beauty ev­ery­where,” Kur­de­wan wrote in a fol­low-up email.

“Let’s put them to­gether. They’ll never last,” Kur­de­wan said the bosses at the Times were think­ing when they paired the men to­gether. Their col­lab­o­ra­tion lasted 10 years un­til the pho­tog­ra­pher’s death. “We built a tremen­dous friend­ship,” he said.

JOHN KUR­DE­WAN PHOTO

Pho­tog­ra­pher Bill Cun­ning­ham, left, and John Kur­de­wan, a New York Times pro­duc­tion artist who worked closely with Cun­ning­ham as his as­sis­tant, de­sign­ing his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” pages in the Sun­day Times.

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