John Kurdewan is the former assistant to Bill Cunningham, fashion photographer for the New York Times known for his regular series On the Street published from 1978 until his recent death in June 2016 at age 87. John grew up in Neptune, New Jersey. He still resides in New Jersey and commutes to his job at The New York Times on the train every morning. He is a self-described “goofy uncle” type, fashions his hair in a ponytail and beard, and wears jeans and a cooked salmon-colored short sleeve button-down. We sit in a small conference room at the New York Times. Still speaking about Bill off and on in the present tense, John’s eyes are a little glossy from long workdays or reliving memories.
MR: Now that Bill has passed, is the workload twice as much?
JK: Actually it’s three times the amount of work when you’re working for Bill. Of course, the workload would depend on the season and time of day. It would also depend on whether or not he found something fantastic. Because if he did that, he knew he had something going and he’d run with it. That was the worst part ‘cause he would make me go through the archives to find something he knew he had previously shot and with over 600,000 images in Bill’s digital archive, it could take awhile. It was this massive and it was only four years of shooting digital. I think Bill started making the switch to digital in 2012. In 2013 he fully switched over. We tried in 2011 but he wasn’t into it. He didn’t like it until I explained it. I remember when he finally got that he could shoot 2,000 images on each of his four 16 gig memory cards, he could immediately see what he shot, and immediately download them back at the office. When he got that, he was like, “OKAY!” He started liking it finally. Then Pandora’s box was open and I couldn’t control him.
MR: What was his routine like?
JK: He would go out on the street every day at 8AM. Then he would come to the office at around 10AM, we’d have our coffee and he’d tell me if he saw anything and we’d chitchat like old washerwomen. We started making names for the people he would shoot regularly, you know, the kind of people that just came around ‘cause they knew he would shoot them and they expected him to shoot them. I would make fun of them and Bill would be nice. “You know, I saw your friend today,” Bill would say. He would probably be talking about this one kid who would walk by five or six times a day until he shot him. It drove us both crazy. “You didn’t shoot him though, right Bill?” “Nope,” he’d say. I mean, every once in a while he would take his picture, but when he wanted to have fun, he’d just pretend he shot him and make a click gesture. We would upload the photos he’d taken that morning and I’d send him back on his way.
MR: Were there a lot of “regulars”?
JK: There were a lot of those people, yes. They wanted his attention because they knew who he was. After the documentary, they really knew who he was. “Oh he’s that sweet old man,” they’d say. “No, he’s that mean old bastard!” I’d say. We had a tremendous respect and love for each other. I loved that he loved his work and he loved that I liked to bust his chops. Really, he just wanted to be treated like a regular person. And a lot of people didn’t treat him that way. But I knew when he didn’t want to be bothered. When I figured that out, that’s when our friendship became paramount. People would approach us and if I knew he didn’t want to talk, I would give them a signal with my eyes to back off. I would always check with Bill first before agreeing to a story
with the press. One time, the security guard brought someone up to do an interview out of the blue. That was like the kiss of death. We were working. We couldn’t be bothered. If the building was on fire, we wouldn’t move from the desk, especially on Thursdays because Thursdays were when we started building the page.
MR: Today is Thursday.
JK: And the only reason you’re up here today is because he’s not here anymore. The only person who could call me while we were at work was my mother. My phone would ring. “Pick up. It’s your mother,” he’d say. Then I’d have to hand him the phone so he could talk to her. Although they never met, he would send her Jacques Torres chocolates for every holiday. Things could get heated on Thursdays but it was passion about the page we were making. “You’re not mad about today, right?” he’d ask me after we’d finished working. “No,” I’d say. “Bill, I don’t get mad.”
MR: Tell me about Bill’s work ethic.
JK: If I took time off, I would have to tell him months in advance. He never took a vacation or sick day. When he broke his kneecap, he came to work. He tried to hide it from me and he told other people not to tell me. He knew I’d be mad. I‘d tell him, “Be careful. You’re 87 and you do more work than a 25 year old.” He didn’t understand a thing about deadlines. On Fridays, I’d get in early because I knew he’d be sitting there with coffee and a butter roll. Fridays at 3:15PM everything must be done and sent down to the copy people. “No, no. I’m the boss,” he’d say. That’s where the nickname came from. He was the boss. Deadlines, especially in newspaper, are very important. If you don’t have the pages, they can’t put it on the press. Fortunately, we always made the deadline, except for one time. We were two or three minutes late and Bill said, “Don’t worry about it!” Of course, he didn’t have to because anyone who would yell at us would get my extension. His phone would just ring and ring…
MR: Talk to me about your relationship.
JK: If you talked badly about me to him, you were dead to him. We had a code and camaraderie. It was an inner circle and once you were his dearest friend, you could do no wrong. When he broke his kneecap, I took him to physical therapy. In return, he took me to the Met Gala. It was my first time going. I was in the background as his personal bodyguard. He did really well. He decided he was going to go down the staircases. He’d put his hand on my shoulder
just to balance himself. He didn’t want to look feeble. So the Hollywood elites would come up the stairs and we’d go down, snapping pictures the whole way. When they had dinner, he would weave between the tables. Everyone was very sweet, courteous, and respectful. I was just there to make sure nothing happened to him. Wherever he went I went. When it was time to leave, he’d just say, “Let’s go.” At night when I was going home, I would tell Bill to call me while I was on the train “to wake me up.” But I didn’t need the alarm. I was really keeping track of him. I needed to know he was safe. He would still be going out to parties and riding his bicycle. But sometimes I’d call him to check in. There is a signal for when you call Bill. Give it three rings, hang up, and call back. Then he would know it was a friend- simple but affective. I worried a lot. One time I went to his apartment and waited in his lobby. “It’s 12AM and you’re just getting home?” I said. “What are you doing here?” he asked me. “I’m seeing if you’re alive.” He felt guilty. “Yes, I’m alive,” he said. “See you in a few hours.”
MR: What did you know about fashion before Bill?
JK: I grew up in New Jersey so Bill would always say, “What do you know about fashion?” I really did know nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t car about it. I didn’t understand it. But when I started working with Bill, it became interesting. Then it became more interesting and then it became an obsession.
MR: Tell me some of the lessons Bill taught you over the years.
JK: His gift was always teaching. He loved to teach. He was generous with his time and patience even if he didn’t think I was listening. I was. He would think it was too boring for me. “Are you bored with this?” he’d ask. His concern was always that the reader was getting bored. And I’d think about how he was doing the work of 30 people— the writer, designer, photographer and how he had to deal with everyone from all walks of life, treating everyone with dignity and respect. Rich or poor, thin or overweight— we never published a bad photo of anyone. No horrible photos of woman’s neckline, or a man eating with his mouth open— he never did anything that made anyone look bad. We wanted to make a woman a woman. We didn’t want to show a bad neckline or bad arms even though she shouldn’t wear some of the dresses she wore. “What was she thinking?” we’d say. “Clearly someone told her to buy that dress. That’s the problem with stylists.” He taught me how to look at someone with a glance and know what that person was wearing. He taught me to look without being a gawker. I know more about fashion now than I ever thought I would. He would always ask me, “Why do you like that?” “Um, I like the way it drapes,” or “This is good because it’s a great example of how a dress should flow on a woman.” “I don’t like this because it’s too flowery.” Those were the kinds of things we’d discuss. Every week could have been something different, a new theme or style. You never know what it’s going to be. When Bill would shoot fashion shows, I’d categorize them by show— Dior, Chanel, etc… He’d shoot inside and outside of each show. Outside of Stella McCartney (I believe that was the show) there was a drop dead gorgeous woman wearing some outrageous black dress at nine or ten in the morning. She had a beautiful tattoo and wore sunglasses. I singled that picture out, out of 7,000 images of people in Paris. “I was waiting for you to pick it out.” Bill said to me. “Why do you like it?” “Look at the way the dress fits her, showing her perfectly sculptured back,” I said.
A week later Bill showed me an email and said, “Hey do you remember this?” We received an email from a woman in British Columbia asking for a picture that Bill took of her daughter. She told me she was wearing a black dress and sunglasses. I said, “Is this your daughter?” It was the only photo I could think of. I sent her a PDF of the page and I sent her more photos. We became friends. It turned out she was combining photos to give to her daughter as a Christmas present. I had Bill sign one of his Facades books. I put it in the mail to Canada so her mother could give that to her for Christmas. If the emails were sweet enough and kind enough, we always did it.
MR: What happens now?
JK: There is talk of finding a replacement. But how do you look for stuff when you don’t know what you’re looking for? He knew who was who of the fashion world. He knew when someone was copying someone else and doing a poor job. He understood quality. Right now they’re sending out certain photographers and you can see the page totally sucks. It’s pathetic. Bill would be laughing his ass off if he was alive. No one has the patience to be out there looking for something. They just run out there, grab something and bring it in. There’s no theme. There’s no consistency and you can see it. Now the party page is full of celebrities. If you look back at ours, every party page was devoted to helping a charity. Now the street page isn’t telling the reader any info. It’s usually just a guy in a fedora and khaki pants. Someone showed it to me and I thought, “This is embarrassing! I could go out there myself and do a better job than they are.” There will be a memorial for Bill in October. We embossed a Nasturtium flower on his program. It’s his favorite flower.
MR: You made your Instagram handle @workforbillc.
JK: I did that on the down low. I never wrote “Bill Cunningham”. I didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was. Probably someone told someone who told other people and it grew from there. I wanted to capture what we were doing behind the scenes. We were working hard. We cut more trees than probably any lumberjack.
MR: But did you ever think about what that might mean when that was no longer the case?
JK: I will always work for Bill. I’m working for Bill at this moment.
Unfortunately, Bill’s beautiful images were unavailable for this interview because of conflicts with his will. For more information about Bill’s archive, check out this article!