When legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham passed away on Saturday, June 25, fans took to Twitter to pay their respects. The feelings reveal that he is equally admired for the way he conducted his work as he is for his enterprising street photography.
Even in his 80s, Cunningham toured the city by bike in a blue french worker jacket, taking pictures of anything that caught his eye. He has photographed his share of galas, but would only ever accept a glass of water from his hosts. Vanity Fair tech correspondent Nick Bilton, who previously worked with Cunningham at The Times, tweeted:
The Time obituary describes Cunningham as fiercely independent, to the point where he would tear up employers’ checks if he felt that accepting the checks compromised his freedom. Many have circulated one of Cunningham’s most popular quotes: “Money is the cheapest thing. Freedom and liberty are the most expensive. He refused to take a full-time position at The Times for two decades until a bicycle accident in 1994. “It was about health insurance,” he once told The Times.
Through his personal and professional choices, Cunningham has revealed how fundamentally flawed the American model of employment is. When employers are the sources of important protections (beyond a salary) required for a good life, namely health insurance, then the labor system will always be in favor of employers.
Liquid Talent co-founder Alex Abelin, a former Google employee (Alphabet) who is a strong advocate of decoupling benefits from employer benefits, once said: “When did we, as a company, agreed that the safety nets and structures of our health should be given by a company? It’s a dangerous deal we have where companies take care of us and that’s how we live our lives.
This is certainly how Cunningham saw it. In addition to cycling around town, he slept on a cot in a minimalist apartment. Yet this way of life and this worldview is what gave more power to his work. He is considered one of New York’s most important cultural anthropologists, as discussed in the film Bill Cunningham New York.
The paradox of innovation, especially in large companies, is that as freedom decreases, creativity also decreases. In order to cultivate more Cunningham, workers need more freedoms and freelancers need more protections. Truly enterprising work often comes from those who are willing to give up security at all costs, but it does not have to be so.