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.
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