Armed with a simple blue jacket, an old fashioned camera (that still uses film!) and his faithful bicycle, Bill Cunningham has become a staple of New York’s seemingly never ending list of iconic figures. He has been called a “war photographer” by his friends and colleagues, because he never gives up until he gets the shot he wants. Through his columns in The New York Times (“On the Street” and “Evening Hours”), he has become the official portraitist of both society life and street style, shooting some of the most famous people in the world as well as a random passerby with a nice outfit.
Despite having one of the most recognizable looks in town, this man, whom everyone seems to know, remains an eternal mystery. Where did he come from? Who is he without the camera? How did he even begin in the business?
At first it seems that Richard Press’ Bill Cunningham New York has set out to answer these questions, after all that’s what most biographical documentaries do. However, given how unusually hermetic Cunningham seems to be, the documentary shifts from being a chronological telling of a life, to become an impressionistic observation of an individual. With stories and anecdotes told by some of his closest friends, the one who does less of the talking is Cunningham himself. He’s always on the run! Either frantically following a runway show or even taking pictures of guests at a party being thrown for him, Press’ camera always try to catch up with Cunningham and his relentless energy.
A revealing essay included in this beautifully packaged DVD edition reveals how Press had to alter regular filmmaking norms to comply with Cunningham’s idiosyncrasies. Using archival footage, the film shows us a man who has been faithful to his ideas since he started in the business. He complains about the lack of style classic Hollywood stars possessed, dismisses supermodels by wondering if they’re human and refuses to collect the checks his employers give him. “Money’s the cheapest thing” he declares, “freedom is expensive”.
One has to wonder how his relations feel about such statements, considering they are comprised of some of the wealthiest, most influential people in the world. From philantropists like Annette de la Renta, to Vogue Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and even the late Brooke Astor (Cunningham was the only member of the press invited to her legendary 100th birthday celebration). You wonder how this revolutionary man became so beloved within a world he doesn’t really fit in.
It’s fascinating to see how his friends speculate about his life and origins. Given that his biography is somewhat muddled, some people assume that he came from money and therefore was given an easy entry into the world of high society. When the filmmakers ask him though, he tells them he comes from a working class home.
His unarguably eccentric way of life enchants those around him who think of Bill as “a character”, a man who consciously designed a persona he would fulfill. Press notices that the people who admire him the most, are also characters in their own way. Diplomats who shocked the United Nations with their love for multi-patterned suits, former ingenues who inspired Andy Warhol…one of his most curious friends is fellow photographer Editta Sherman, often called “the Duchess of Carnegie Hall” because she kept residence there for almost six decades, becoming the poster child for elder care in NYC. Sherman seems to know Cunningham like no one else and their chemistry is more than palpable.
When asked about his romantic relationships, however, Cunningham confesses to having no interest. It’s great to see how the camera always tries to catch him doing something unexpected, yet he remains persistent in preserving his identity.
This is ultimately what hooks audience members to Bill Cunningham New York, not his love of fashion and clothes and definitely not his involvement with high society, but what makes him who he is. As a pure cinematic spectacle, the film is a wondrous character study that reminds us how traits are often more enthralling than events. “Everybody wants to know what he’s thinking, so they can think it” says one of his colleagues regarding his eye for determining future fashion trends. This thought can also be applied to the way in which he conducts his life. For a man who establishes that he’s all about work, you can’t help but wish to spend more time in his presence (20 minutes of additional scenes included in the DVD help!). “He addresses the whole spectrum of who we are as New Yorkers” says the curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, although the values at the center of Cunningham’s appeal are universal.
Be who you want to be, love what you do. One of his mottoes is ”he who seeks beauty shall find it”, and you probably won’t find a more beautiful documentary out this year.