When I heard the other day that my former husband's nephew (by marriage) had signed a contract with a professional hockey team for eight million dollars, I thought of you. Which seems odd, because I don't imagine that you cared much for hockey. But it wasn't really so much the sport, but rather the money that made my forehead wrinkle and heart feel a little sad and uncertain.
You left this world last month, on the 25th of June, and I have been keeping you close in my thoughts ever since. I credit many people I know for nudging me closer toward my desire to create a book, but you, though we never met, are among my greatest influences.
Not because you photographed beautiful people on the streets and at the fancy parties in Manhattan. You did that very well, and I admired your work. But it was really the shots of you that I adored: you riding your bike around the city; you in your uniform of black sneakers and very practical blue workingman's jacket. The images of you, getting down at feet level, smiling in the company of the rich and influential, always, always, with your camera in your hands, right up until the very end. You never stopped doing what you loved doing and I always hoped, whenever I was walking the streets of New York, that I might catch a glimpse of you.
I imagine you were like a wisp of blue and black, a charming, kind-hearted soul with an eye for uncommon beauty, floating in and out of the scenes that played out in New York City during the forty years or so that you photographed people for the Times.
Anyone who knows anything about your life knows that you lived in almost extreme austerity. Your tiny apartment above Carnegie Hall was filled with the filing cabinets that held your negatives. You slept on a single size cot and showered in a shared bathroom down the hall. And you refused to be paid for most of your work.
You found, in that simple and unadorned lifestyle, freedom. And I believe that that was the reason why you shone like a supernova. Why you are always beaming, in almost every picture taken of you. Why you lived a radiant life.
"Money's the cheapest thing," you once said. "Liberty and freedom are the most expensive."
Bill. If I had had the good fortune to have met you, I would have thanked you, not only for understanding that, but for living a life that was true to that core belief. We live in a world where people are desperately seeking meaning. And believe, somehow, that it can be found in the ownership of things, in the acquisition of goods, in the latest version of the iPhone or whatever the glossy rags are claiming as this season's Really Important Thing to Buy. If I have this object, then surely I will feel better...
If you and I had ever had the chance to sit and talk, I would have told you this: there have been times in my life when I had so little money that I couldn't afford a cup of tea and there was a time in my life when I vacationed on an island so exclusive that my boys spent a carefree afternoon tossing the football with Tommy Hilfiger, and Mick Jagger and his posse frolicked on the beach where we played. That I belonged to private clubs where we played tennis in all-whites and I traveled in expensive cars and small planes. I would tell you, Bill, that I felt uncomfortable in those money-soaked places and that ultimately I had to walk away from all of it to find my way back to myself.
I would tell you that during the days when I was photographing weddings, I hated the work I was doing. That I felt as if I had sold my soul simply because wedding photography was where the money was. I learned firsthand how awful it feels to be doing something you love for all the wrong reasons.
"Once people own you, they can tell you what to do," you also said. "So don't let 'em own you."
I know that my former husband's nephew is a very good hockey player. His team just won the Stanley Cup. He has worked hard to get where he is, and he is a true gentleman: an athlete, a scholar and a good father. But I cannot help but wonder...what on this earth makes one man's talents worth so much money? The imbalance we have created by paying our actors and athletes so much and our teachers and caretakers so little is deeply disheartening.
Mr. Cunningham the world lost so much more than a talented photographer when you died. We all lost a role model in a world gone mad. I will ask that you float close by my life as I seek to serve and to live in a way that is authentic. Please guide me toward the things that matter and help me to know the difference between needing something and wanting something. And also, please keep my eyes and my heart focused on the beauty of the world. The true beauty. Amen.