Bill Cunningham New York offers a unique glimpse into the life of a spry 80-year-old veteran photographer who spends his days chronicling fashion trends on the street and at his nights at charity events aiming his camera at high society for his two weekly New York Times columns. Through interviews with Cunningham and the famous and not-so-famous people he has documented and scenes of the photographer at work, director Richard Press has created a fascinating portrait of a notoriously reclusive man who adores his job and is joyously obsessed with capturing the latest fashions.
Bill Cunningham had no interest in participating in a film project. The 80-year-old photographer has been documenting fashion with his camera for nearly five decades. Though he has become famous over the years, he leads a very private life and shuns publicity. Director Richard Press says it took him ten years to make Bill Cunningham New York – eight years to convince Cunningham, who is a friend, and two years to shoot and edit the film.
Luckily, Press was able to gain Cunningham’s trust and the results are delightful. The director unobtrusively follows the photographer by day as he travels about New York City on his bicycle – shooting numerous photos of what people are wearing, darting across a busy street to take a picture, waiting for something interesting to capture. The director takes the lead from the photographer: he stays in the background, taking care not to disturb him as he works, and through this approach, gradually reveals the essence of Cunningham’s commitment with an irrepressible joie de vivre.
Cunningham’s singular focus on his subject is riveting to watch. He’s like a photographer in the wild stalking his prey except that he’s running after a glimpse of an interesting skirt, an unusual shoe or a stylish drape of fabric. Though he has been doing this job for years, he still marvels at the clothes he sees and thrills to see an elegantly dressed woman. Some of these photos will eventually appear in his weekly “On the Street” column for the New York Times.
A charming man with a ready smile, Cunningham claims there is no short cut to capturing the “fashion show on the street.” So he’s outside everyday in all kinds of weather, camera in hand, to see what people are wearing. Remarkably, his day doesn’t end when the sun goes down. At night he’s off on his bicycle to document any number of benefits and galas to photograph the attendees and performers. These images will appear in his other weekly Times column “Evening Hours.” The film chronicles one of his nightly jaunts. His stamina and dedication to his profession is obvious in each of his scenes.
The documentary also includes interviews with people who have appeared in his columns over the years as well as a few of their photo spreads. Press filmed a former diplomat wearing many different outfits cut from very colorful fabrics; he discusses his clothes and why he thought Cunningham photographed them. In another interview, a young man wearing dramatic eye makeup and a striking hat that matches his suit recalls the moment a friend told him that an entire “On the Street” column had been devoted solely to his clothes and hats. Press also speaks with Iris Apfel, an octogenarian with an extravagant and outrageous sense of style and Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue who says: “we all get dressed for Bill”. And he spoke with Tom Wolfe, a writer known for his sartorial trademark, the white suit. They all have great respect and admiration for Cunningham but know little about his personal life.
Additional details about the reserved photographer gradually emerge and he comes across as a man with immense integrity and one who truly loves his work. When he’s deciding which events to attend at night, he says his only consideration is the foundation or organization that is benefiting from the event, not the guest list. The film shows him photographing such an event and refusing a repeated offer of food and drink because that would compromise the newspaper. He’s simply there to do his job, not to socialize.
Before his position at the New York Times, we discover that he was a photographer with the fashion industry trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily. He once shot photos showing models wearing designer outfits and juxtaposed them with everyday women wearing a combination of clothes similar to the models. His intention was to show that the creativity of women on the street is similar to that of fashion designers. However, unbeknownst to Cunningham, Women’s Wear Daily chose to mock their clothing. So he quit, appalled that his photos would be used to disrespect the women.
The documentary also provides an eye-opening view of Cunningham’s home, a very small studio in Carnegie Hall crammed so full of file cabinets containing his negatives that there’s barely enough room for his narrow bed. He gives the director a “tour” of his place, which has no kitchen or bathroom, his few clothes hang on hangers hooked onto the handles of his file cabinets. This startling scene illustrates just how deeply committed he is to his work. He doesn’t have room for anything but photography in his life. And the documentary makes it clear that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cunningham makes fun of the fact that he documents fashion for a living, yet has few clothes himself. But he does have his own sense of practical style, wearing his own everyday uniform of a sort – a plain blue jacket worn by street sweepers in Paris.
Towards the end of the documentary, Press follows Cunningham to Paris as he attends Fashion Week. The veteran photographer likes to sit at the side, rather than at the end of the catwalk where all the other photographers position themselves so they can take frontal shots of the models as they strike their final pose. Cunningham would rather watch the models stride by him and shoot how the clothes look when they walk. He says Fashion Week “re-educates the eye.” But he’s also in Paris to accept the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. True to form, Cunningham brings his camera to the event and takes pictures. A woman asks him why he’s “working” and shouldn’t he just be enjoying the event? But he says it’s not work, it’s fun.
The only awkward moments arise at the end when an off-screen voice asks Cunningham about his sexuality and how important the church is to his life. Earlier in the documentary, he’s asked about his family and his life before he became a photographer, but the film never delves very deeply into his early life. Nearly all the interviews are with people who have some connection to his work as a photographer. Cunningham’s admiration for his subjects and his joy in the work is palpable in every frame.