If you like fashion, photography, or inspirational stories, you need to see the documentary film Bill Cunningham New York, which is available on DVD (affiliate link here). The film will make you smile. This man really, really loves his job. I saw the film at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival and reviewed it for DOX, the magazine of the European Documentary Network. I reprint it here for you:
WHEN THEY WALK
by Chuleenan Svetvilas
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 — staying in the background, taking care not to disturb him as he works — and through this approach, gradually reveals the essence of Cunningham’s commitment and a fascinating portrait of a man 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 with his 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. Clearly, Cunningham is very fit. 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, 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; Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who says “We all get dressed for Bill”; and 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 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 women on the street had creativity similar to fashion designers. However, unbeknownst to Cunningham, WWD 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 into 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 and his few clothes are on hangers hooked on 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 on 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. The focus is on the man today and it works because Cunningham is a unique individual with an utterly engaging personality. Cunningham’s admiration for his subjects and his joy in the work is palpable in every frame.
UPDATE: On June 25, 2016, Bill Cunningham passed away at age 87. Here’s my brief blog post about his death, along with links to other articles on him.