We went west, camping. This was the second time. The first time we went east, down the Great Ocean Road, up into the highlands, out into the hay plains. We were in the middle of breaking up. She was very sad, and I was very remote.
This time was a couple of years later. We were back together. She was still sad; or sad again. Newly, desperately sad, starting after we'd made the plans. She didn't want to go. I drove us out of town with a decided optimism as firm-set and grasped-at as the road.
Our first night was in Port Augusta, only three and a half hours from home. We had forgotten how to raise a tent. There was no grass, just hard red rocky dirt. We argued, frustrated and feeling foolish, bending the tent pegs, groundsheet flapping. It was the windiest night in years, they said. The sky was black.
We had brought a laptop and paid extra for power, because not to have access to some of our rituals and routines of comfort would have been a dealbreaker, but in the end she didn't want to watch anything. The tent was rattling and it was cold. Her brain was too loud. She put her headphones on. It was still early. I thought that tomorrow she would ask to go home.
I put on Bill Cunningham New York
with an optimism shading more into the desperate and foreboding. After a few minutes, she took off her headphones, and I started it again.
She likes gentle people. She likes people who endure, and smile, and be themselves, and have love to spare. People who care for others, who are creative in a way that doesn't register to her as pretentious. Anyone over the age of seventy-five melts her. She swooned for Bill Cunningham.
Bill Cunningham revolutionised celebrity photography and fashion photography, sharp and focussed as a laser when it came to capturing how the people of New York wore and lived their clothes. He was an eccentric who lived with eccentrics, if by eccentric you mean someone who does not follow the typical patterns and aesthetics of modern life. He had no partner. He was a mystery even to colleagues and friends who had known him for decades. He was small, and by the time of the documentary gaining a geriatric bend and weariness and medical regime, but he was still quick-witted and surprisingly agile when his photography called for it. He wore the same clothes every day. He rode his bicycle (make that bicycles: they had been stolen by the dozens) everywhere he needed to go. He had a boyhood and a past he didn't like to talk about. He didn't like to talk about himself, or even really his driving purpose in life. He wanted to hold the camera, and point it out, towards the thousands of people he saw daily, in the offices of the New York Times
, in the ballroom parties and galas of the elite, in the crowds on the street.
In Bill Cunningham New York
he is obviously uncomfortable being inside the frame instead of outside of it, except for those times when he forgets himself in his work, running out into the road to capture a pattern or shape or texture as it strolls past. But he smiles and jokes and puts up with the reversal, maintaining scepticism that he himself and his approach to his calling could be of interest, could speak as loudly about humanity as the photographs he took.
He thought himself boring, and he wasn't interested in boring people, people who wore the right clothes the right way, the most expensive dress. He was interested in people who were being themselves, who brought their personality to bear on their material lives, whose eyes could transform the ordinary, who appeared to show us that just being alive and being creatively yourself was the first and most fundamental step.
This was, of course, a quaint and terrifically endearing blind spot. We were both in love with him by the five-minute-mark, blown far away from the wind and the worry and the sadness. I've always been grateful to him for that. It turned out to be a good holiday.
Last month, we happened to watch the documentary Iris
, about another New York fashion eccentric Iris Apfel, also up there in age. Bill appeared, inevitably, in this documentary too; and so afterwards we rewatched Bill Cunningham New York
(realising at that point that Iris Apfel also featured in this film), and were gladdened and warmed by his quick quiet spirit all over again.
He passed away yesterday at the age of 87."Who will we dress for now?"
ask the fashionistas and moguls of New York: being snapped by Bill at a party was never guaranteed or to be taken for granted, and to impress him was often the goal. He did not want to sit in the front rows of the fashion shows, preferring to hear the unguarded chatter of those relegated to the back. His days mostly were spent in the streets, looking for people, for art.
To have an eye that judges without being judgemental; to be gentle; to be honest; to be loyal; to be unimpressed by status; to work hard; to know truthfully one's own talent, and passion, and to pursue it with a firm hand but no overriding ego; to refuse money for money's sake; to be alive to the world; to have a sense of history; to value the unconventional; to know there is difficulty and sorrow and still search for beauty; to be generous with smiles and genuine with praise. In Bill Cunningham New York
he seems to touch the lives of everyone in the city, just by being there to witness them. It's a sorrow to lose a person like that.