Experience The Times of Bill Cunningham

Read Time: 6 minutes

The immersive exhibition—Experience the Times of Bill Cunningham—opened to the public on September 12 during New York Fashion Week. SEGD member firm, NBBJ’s New York experience design studio, ESI Design, created the show which is based on the documentary film, The Times of Bill Cunningham (2020). SEGD sits down with filmmaker Mark Bozek (Live Rocket Studios) and Layne Braunstein (NBBJ/ESI Design) to talk about the exhibition and its famous subject: the fashion and street photographer, Bill Cunningham (1929–2016).

This isn’t your parents’ photography show; there are no framed photos mounted to gallery walls surrounded by guards and guides and hushed visitors. Instead, Experience the Times of Bill Cunningham presents the photographer’s work in immersive, experiential and engaging ways, often reflecting the energy and enthusiasm of Cunningham himself.

Many know Cunningham’s photos from weekly spreads in The New York Times which ran from 1978 to 2016 and where Bill captured the fashions of New York’s designers, social elites, and—more famously—everyday people. But the exhibition also presents Cunningham as a unique New York personality, a modest guy who called himself a “documentarian” as he rode his bicycle around the city taking photos of whatever the day presented to him.

SEGD

Hello Mark and Layne!

Mark, your documentary, The Times of Bill Cunningham, is unique in the fact that it’s told by Bill himself through a series of video clips. When did you interview Bill for the film?

Mark

What I did was the short history, which is actually a really long history. When I started to make this film about Bill five years ago, after he had died, I based the documentary on this interview that I had done with him 23 years prior in 1994. 

SEGD

The film was released just last year in 2020. Why did you decide to work with ESI Design to create an exhibition so soon after the film’s release?

Mark

The film came out in February 2020 on Valentine's Day in New York at the Angelika (Film Center) and opened the New York Film Festival. Then we went to LA; did well in Chicago; and we’re set to open in 75 theaters on March 13 in North America—which is a huge amount of theaters for a doc—but then COVID happened, and it shut the entire thing down.

SEGD

That sounds devastating! What did you decide to do next? And how did you eventually hook up with Edwin Schlossberg (SEGD Fellow 2020) and ESI Design (SEGD member firm) to create the exhibition experience?

Mark

Like the rest of the world, we were all figuring out what was going on, and what we're going to do, and how we're going to live. I reached out to Edwin Schlossberg, as I knew him from the clothing business back in the 80s. I worked for the (clothing) designer Willi Smith at WilliWear, and we ended up making the clothes for Caroline (Kennedy) and Ed’s wedding—all of the groomsmen’s clothes and the bridesmaids’ dresses—and we stayed in touch.” So fast forward to 2020, we all got together and said, “How can we make this film into something else and not have it simply end up on some movie streaming site?” 

That’s when I met Layne Braunstein, and the whole ESI Design gang came down to this 18,000-square-foot (former) Abercrombie and Fitch store on Fulton and Water Street (in The Seaport)—it still smelled very much like an Abercrombie and Fitch even though it closed four years before. What began was this amazing collaboration. We painted the entire (interior) black, so that was our blank canvas which we then started to bring to life—and much more so than just framed pictures on a museum wall!

SEGD

So, Layne, you then started to work with Mark on the experience. What is the concept behind it?

Layne

I was going for this experience, to create something that hadn't really been done before. It's the merging of these ticketed event experiences with the idea of a museum exhibit—and what is the in-between for that? At the end of the day, this is a photography show, but it’s interactive, where visitors will discover the full essence of Bill.

Mark

Bill was always about discovery and discovering new things.

Layne

Early on Mark walked us through his film, and that was a big ah-ha moment. We started to unpack the film, and one of the things I realized is that the film is not really linear—and Bill’s life wasn't linear. He had big moments and then small moments, but everything was more about his growth as a photographer and documentarian and his persistent passion for discovering what’s next. We wanted Experience the Times of Bill Cunningham to also feel that way; it doesn't fully feel linear even though there's a path.

SEGD

And what does that vision look like in terms of interactive experiences within the exhibition?

Layne

There is a very artistically styled bike path that travels throughout the space that ends on Bill's bike. There are several different photo moments in the space. There's a moment where guests can pose between stylized neon frames on a New York City crosswalk, which appears in a lot of Bill’s photos. On one of the grand staircases, we project various colors and patterns onto visitors. The patterns themselves are from classic dresses captured in Bill’s photos throughout the decades, such as tartan, houndstooth, and floral couture. Together, the patterns and colors have over 40 combinations, digitally transformed into a one-of-a-kind fashion statement worthy of a Cunningham snap.

SEGD

How are Bill’s photos displayed within the space? As Mark stated earlier, they’re not framed photos on the wall, right?

Layne

We had a lot of source material to utilize from Bill’s archive and the experience features over 500 original photos. We themed and grouped these images together in a way that allows them to be dynamically pulled together with associated video and written notes or captions. This way we aren’t showing the whole catalog of images at once, and it gives visitors a slightly different experience as they walk through each time. 

For example, there is a theme about the Versailles Fashion Show of 1973, where you might have a clip of Bill talking about the show, see some of his notes about it, and some of his associated photos. But the next time you walk through that space it might be totally different.

This allows different  themes from Bill’s life to emerge, and if we add more photo, video and text assets, allows the experience to change over time. 

SEGD

How does the exhibition conclude? How does it present Bill’s legacy?

Layne

The tour culminates with Bill’s original photos colliding with current street style trends in real-time. Using AI-technology, the experience matches images Bill took with current photos from fans and street photographers providing a final contemplative moment. This  takes the idea of “the future of fashion” and visualizes it in interesting ways. For example, and this is simplifying it, but if in one of Bill's photos it's raining, it's the middle of the day, and the subject has an umbrella, the software will pair that with a modern image with similar content.

Mark

Bill Cunningham is the originator of street photography. He did it longer and more than anyone else. There are over 3 million images in his archive—which I had to sift through to scan 27,000 of them—and we ended up using 512 of them in the film, and in the Experience!

SEGD

So what do you think Experience the Times of Bill Cunningham has achieved so far?

Mark

We are so grateful to have TimeOut New York call the experience a “must see event,” but I think the real wins are when people come in from The Seaport who aren’t familiar with Bill’s work  and just go “Wow! This is really cool; what a cool character this guy is!”

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