[16 March 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I think fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.
—Bill Cunningham, 27 October 2002
Bill Cunningham won’t accept even a glass of water when he’s working. He’d rather eat before he heads off to a ballet gala or a museum opening, so he won’t “compromise the Times.” The longtime street and society event photographer explains, “It’s keeping a distance from what you’re doing, so you can be more objective. Objective over what I don’t know, but it works for me.”
To illustrate, Bill Cunningham New York cuts from Cunningham huddled over a sandwich at his favorite deli to the man at work, bending a knee to capture a gown or sparkling necklace from just the right angle. The “distance” he keeps is a matter of perspective. In his two New York Times columns, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” he represents a range of subjects, wealthy and (variously) not: he insists his focus is the clothes, and sometimes, contexts. He doesn’t care about celebrities or names, he says (“I tell people, ‘Don’t bother sending me a guest list,’ because I’m not interested. I’m interested in what the charity does”), though his subjects might feel otherwise. “I think he photographs life,” sums up Annette de la Renta, her interview arranged to show her life, complete with dog charmingly flopped on the floor in her elegant sitting room.
The differences between lives are visible in Cunningham’s photos. The film indicates that his society subjects all “know” Bill, as he’s been shooting them for decades. De la Renta smiles as she says Bill is happier to catch you “looking terrible and ratty” rather than “in something incredibly elegant and smart” (even as her “ratty” coat is plainly expensive and chic). Further, says Anna Wintour, “I think everyone who knows Bill and understands what he represents will always be thrilled to be photographed by Bill. I mean, I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill.”
That’s not to say anyone “knows” Bill. Asked about his personal life, Paper magazine co-editor Kim Hastreiter answers, “Nothing, absolutely nothing,” and de la Renta flutters, “I have no idea what he does do.” Director Richard Press and cinematographer Tony Cenicola (a Times staff photographer) follow him home, to the rent-controlled Carnegie Hall studio he’s hung onto despite ongoing efforts by the Carnegie Hall Corporation to turn all the space into offices. Here he teases his 96-year-old neighbor Editta Sherman about trying to keep Press from filming her photo of Andy Warhol (“What, are you kidding! That’s what he was all about, being photographed!”).
Cunningham lives simply—a mattress propped up on milk crates, a collection of file cabinets stuffed with photo negatives and contact sheets, a table and a chair, and the latest of his 29 bicycles (the previous 28 were stolen)—and with a sense of what that means. His acquaintances guess his family is wealthy (“Only people who come from wealth can live the way he lives,” notes Details magazine founder Annie Flanders), and he describes his background as a simple-seeming series of events: he dropped out of Harvard, he moved to New York (where worked as a milliner), he was drafted into the Army in 1951 (his “very affluent” business partners, he says, “were appalled I would go and their investment would be on hold… I was appalled at them: this is the country where you live, you’re drafted, you go”). When he returned, he worked as a writer for the Chicago Tribune and a photographer for Women’s Wear Daily. After a run-in with the editors over their use of his street photos to make fun of his subjects, Cunningham started with the Times.
His sense of class and sensitivity to classism shape his art. Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, submits, “Bill is a true egalitarian, however that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of the nuances of cultural division and hierarchy. He just treats it all the same.” While his photos show this attitude, the film underlines, showing him at what Cunningham calls a “rally to save or protect the garment industry from disappearing, but I’m afraid it’s too late.” The rally is small, and, he notes, “95% of the clothes are made outside of America.”
Industry politics are not this film’s concern, but they have everything to do with Cunningham’s life. As he patches his inexpensive rain poncho (“I don’t believe in one wear, so a little tape and we’re back in business,” he says brightly) or bikes from assignment to assignment, the 82-year-old photographer keeps focused on the work. That, he says, is finding beauty and—especially—originality—in unexpected places. “Money’s the cheapest thing,” he advises Press (who remains off screen). “Liberty, freedom is the most expensive thing.” You believe him, that he believes it. Whatever his many acquaintances might guess about his experience or say about their seeming relationships to him, Cunningham’s own faith is repeatedly visible in his work.