Life as Cunningham’s right-hand man
Kurdewan worked with photographer at New York Times
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.
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.