Fashion and the industry that revolves around it are not my forte. Therefore it might come as a surprise that I enjoyed Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary that centers on an 80-year-old photographer who captures what people are wearing in New York City. While fashion is Bill’s obsession, the director (Richard Press) obsesses over digging a bit deeper and seeing what makes this man, far past the typical age of retirement, so aggressively pursue his trade.
Much of the doc is spent with Cunningham doing his thing. He pedals his bike around town until he finds a spot he wants to shoot. Then he takes out his trusty 35mm camera and begins to take shots of those on the street wearing things he finds interesting. The end result ends up in The New York Times. In addition to shooting on the street, Bill also attends some of the swankiest parties in town. While paparazzi would likely kill to have his access, Bill is oblivious to the celebrities. His sole focus is on what people are wearing. If it’s interesting, he shoots. If it’s not, he doesn’t bother to pretend he cares one bit. He doesn’t waste the film.
We also learn that Cunningham is a man of principle beyond the ethics of his photography. When moonlighting for Details magazine in its earliest days, Bill refused to take any money for his work. The only thing he demanded was that he get to put out the work he wanted to put out. When Details magazine was sold to the conglomerate Condé Nast, Bill refused even then to take his share in the profits. He argued that by not taking the money for this work he was truly free. No one owns him.
Watching Cunningham work with his NYT art director putting together the collage of photos on the page is entertaining. The give and take between the photographer and the art director is fun. There appears to be no particular rhyme or reason why the page is put together the way it is other than it appeals to Bill’s aesthetics – and the constraints of the printed page. Even those print constraints begin to break as the Times pushes everything online, including a reluctant Cunningham, who records five minutes of audio each week to serve as commentary on his latest published piece.
The admiration for the man and his work is made known through a who’s who line-up of famous and not so famous designers, publishers, celebrities, and the fancy dressers Bill has brought fame to through his pages. Like anyone who is so engulfed in their work, Cunningham has little time to think about the impact he’s had on the industry or those in it. He reluctantly accepts a prestigious award in Paris for his work, but even there he can’t help but take photos of those in attendance to celebrate his award.
One look at Cunningham’s small studio in Carnegie Hall where he lives, or likely just stays long enough to sleep, tells us that Cunningham is not just passionate about his work, he’s obsessive compulsive about it. Barely enough room to walk around the tiny quarters, Bill shows us rows of filing cabinets that hold archives of his work. And he’s been at this for a long time so it’s not an exaggeration to say that there is barely enough room for a tiny cot. And for a man who likes nothing other than to admire and capture what people wear, his own collection of clothing is nearly non-existent. He hangs what little clothing he owns on filing cabinets.
When those who’ve known Bill the longest are asked about his personal life no one has any clues. The man is a mystery to even them. Towards the end of the doc the director does his best to get a fuller portrait of the man he’s been capturing for his film. He asks Bill simple questions about his family, if he’s ever been in love, what role religion plays if any in his life. Bill starts to break down a bit and even cries. Not lost in the tears though, Bill sees the brighter side to life. He confesses that he wouldn’t want to be doing anything different. He contends that his fairly solitary journey through life has afforded him the opportunity to pursue his passion.
Bill Cunningham New York offers a glimpse into the world of a man who does what he does because he loves it. It’s a documentary that does it’s best to dive deeper but realizes that is likely to lead to a very different kind of story, one that misses the passion of Bill Cunningham’s life long work.