Bill Cunningham New York
Superbly touching documentary follows one man’s life in picture taking
Published: March 30, 2011
Bill Cunningham New York
Directed by Richard Press
Opens April 1 at the Charles Theater
You probably wouldn’t notice the older gentleman with the camera if he wasn’t the subject of this adorable documentary. He looks unassuming: Clad in nondescript slacks, a button-down shirt and sweater, a blue smock, and a flat cap, with an ordinary camera around his neck, he stands on a Manhattan street corner watching people, his back to the street. Occasionally the camera rushes to his face and he takes a quick shot. Occasionally he sees something he likes so much he takes a few shots—of a woman, say, as she approaches, passes, and continues on her way. Sometimes he hurries across a crosswalk to catch somebody as they cross the street. Sometimes he just walks right up to a group of women talking on the sidewalk and takes photos of their shoes. He’s not aggressive about it—in fact, he’s almost invisible, save for the camera that pops up to his face as he snaps something and then immediately smiles at the passersby. He just loves what people decide to wear when they leave their homes—and he’s been looking at what people wear for most of his 80-something years.
Bill Cunningham New York is one of those documentaries that’s pretty impossible not to like. It’s a portrait of somebody who has spent his entire life doing something he loves—and doing so, perhaps, at a great personal cost. You get the impression he doesn’t think so one bit, as Cunningham, as captured by Richard Press’ cameras, exudes an unflappable joie de vivre—this octogenarian still bikes around Manhattan—but there’s an undeniably bittersweet streak that runs through his story, which he has spent mostly unattached and living alone in an artist studio overstuffed with his photo archives and very, very, very little else.
If you read The New York Times, you already know Cunningham. Since the late 1970s, he has been documenting New York’s street fashions—from the era of denim dresses to baggy jeans, from fannypacks to men in skirts—in a column that for most of recent memory has appeared in the Sunday Style section as “On the Street,” typically a half-page of photos of people out and about. He also attends charity and socialite events for the Times’ “Evening Hours,” which offers a candid peek at Manhattan’s monied elite. What runs through both columns is Cunningham’s complete lack of condescension. He loves fashion and he’s not taking photos to make fun of people. The documentary contains footage from a 1980s interview with Cunningham in which he calls fashion the armor people put on to survive everyday existence.
It’s the sincere appreciation for human individuality, not aristocratic or celebrity glamour, that defines fashion for Cunningham, an egalitarian attitude that appears to influence every aspect of his life. When Press catches up with Cunningham, he’s one of two people still living in the rent-controlled studios above Carnegie Hall—the other is the irreplaceable maven/photographer Editta Sherman—with no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall. Cunningham’s studio is a maze of metal file cabinets containing his work and books; his closet is what appears to be a few shirts and things on hangers hooked over the file cabinets’ handles, and his bed is a one-person cot stacked on planks. He keeps his bike in a storage closet, and he appears to spend his every waking moment out in the streets, in the Times offices obsessively organizing his page—and excessively testing his art director’s patience (that he calls pretty much everybody at the Times “you kids” is hilariously cute)—and running around to events at night. If you’re half as spry as Cunningham is if you’re fortunate enough to make it to your 80s, more power to you.
Cunningham’s ephemeral vitality is what is so fascinating about his story. Although you’ll find out more about Cunningham’s personal story and chronology in an Oct. 27, 2002 Sunday Style piece he wrote about himself, what Bill Cunningham New York offers instead is a mash note to somebody all-in dedicating his life to something. Throughout, Press talks with a rotating cast of impressive names—Iris Apfel, Annette de la Renta, Tom Wolfe, Anna Piaggi, Shail Upadhya, Harold Koda, Patrick McDonald, and a downright doting Anna Wintour—who sincerely sing Cunningham’s praises. He so obviously wears his appreciation for how people dress themselves and what fashion can mean to everyday people that his enthusiasm is infectious. He worked for editor Annie Flanders and art director Lesley Vinson when Flanders started Details as the coolest magazine ever in March 1982—Press shows some of the layouts they did at the time in the movie, and they’re still kinetically alive—and Cunningham did it for free, to the extent of declining checks from Condé Nast after it bought the title. By the time Press gets to asking Cunningham about the toll his single-minded pursuits may have taken on him personally, the moment is heartbreaking, but it’s counterbalanced by scene after scene after scene of the photographer looking like he’s still having more fun than anybody else in the room. So yeah: By deciding to do what he’s done Bill Cunningham may have sacrificed a few of the more customary creature comforts, but he has lived doing something that appears the bring him nothing but absolute joy. We should all be so lucky.
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