I did not know that I knew who Bill Cunningham was when I sat down to watch a documentary on his life. You likely do not know him either, unless you are a reader of The New York Times and have found his Sunday photography column. Cunningham is a fashion photographer known for shooting candid shots of everyday citizens and the elite amongst the fashion world.
Regarded as one of the most innovative and groundbreaking photographers of the last several decades, “Bill Cunningham New York” attempts to finally reveal to the world who the private and reclusive, but always affable, Bill Cunningham truly is. Entrenched in Manhattan and on screen here at 82 years old, Cunningham can be found each and every day riding through Manhattan on his trademark bicycle, camera at the ready, snapping pictures left and right.
He lives for the moment – the leap over a mud puddle, the rushing to cross the street. Even at an advanced age, Bill Cunningham is everywhere it seems – on the streets of Manhattan taking pictures during the day and analyzing his work at night. He is present at all major fashion events in the City, documenting parades, parties, and exclusive fashion shows. And yet for the man who has Manhattan’s fashion world at his beck and call, extravagance is not always better. Cunningham finds delight in over-the-top and garish fashion, but also in the simplicity in everyday people’s clothing choices. Basically, if Cunningham likes what he sees, chances are you will be photographed and potentially find yourself in the pages of the New York Times.
Directed by Richard Press, Cunningham is a fascinating figure and makes for an equally fascinating documentary subject. He is grandfatherly but without family. He has been immersed in the New York City fashion culture for so long that he has virtually seen and met every important figure to pass through the turnstiles of that exclusive world. Notably, he has the respect and admiration of seemingly everyone in that realm, including Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and a gaudy mix of 90-something fashionistas who he considers his friends. He lives, for much of this film, at Carnegie Hall in a small living space he’s called home for 50+ years.
Containing little more than imposing metal filing cabinets, which house decades of negatives and old photographs. Cunningham hangs his laundry on the drawer handles, shares a residential shower. He is a fascinating character study, giving over his life to the world of clothing and fashion and adapting his life’s needs to the very basics. Some would say he is tunnelvisioned and stubbornly, perhaps even defiantly, Cunningham sees his life as simply immersing himself in doing what he loves.
An equally fascinating element of the film is the realization that with all of the people Cunningham knows and has contacts with, no one really knows anything about him. Cunningham is not reclusive per se but deeply private. In some instances, colleagues and industry friends who have known him for decades share that they really know nothing of his private life or family life. Cunningham is guarded and one of the more interesting elements of Press’ film is how he is able to gain Cunningham’s trust little by little, and get the photographer Bill Cunningham to discuss the man that Bill Cunningham is. Well…kinda sorta.
Cunningham was drafted and served in the Army after achieving success with a line of “William J.” hats in the late 1940′s. Once he completed his tour, he began writing a fashion column for The Chicago Tribune, and eventually became a columnist for the original Details Magazine. A chance encounter in 1978 with the reclusive actress Greta Garbo and his subsequent photographs of her led to his still-weekly column appearing in the Times.
He is alone but not lonely. He shares story after story of his fashion life and experiences. He is social but not all that sharing of himself. Ever so slightly, glimmers of the internal Cunningham squeak through in the more engaging moments of the film. Eventually, Press goes for the uncomfortable and asks Cunningham about his personal life. And Cunningham becomes coy and playfully confrontational in a moment of intriguing drama.
Whether that moment is truly necessary, I admit I wrestled with that in my mind. But I liked Bill Cunningham a lot. I liked his movie a lot. At 82, he has never lost his free spirit, his rhythm, and his passion in doing what he loves to do is as strong as ever. While it is easy to get swept up in the thought that Cunningham has devoted his entire life to his passion and has no partner/spouse or children or family to speak of, something tells me Bill Cunningham wouldn’t have his life work out any other way. And frankly, that’s hard not to admire on many levels.