Bill Cunningham New York

Richard Press has made a documentary about Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer and writer. Since I have never been terribly keen on fashion, I was not sure I would find this film interesting, but I found Cunningham an engaging and likable person. He is now about eighty-years-old, yet he still rides around Manhattan on a bicycle, looking for people wearing striking clothes.

In the film, Cunningham defends the concept of fashion by saying that he regards clothing as “armor” that helps people deal with the vicissitudes of life. Cunningham’s own armor consists of a plain blue jacket that he seems to wear at all times. His non-descript appearance is in sharp contrast to the flamboyantly dressed people he likes to photograph on the streets of New York. (As a photographer myself, I was pleased to see that Cunningham still uses film.) No doubt Cunningham tries to draw as little attention to himself as possible, so as to get the candid pictures that he is famous for.

Cunnigham is a deeply private person, and Press respects this – perhaps too much so, because by the end of this film Cunningham is still something of a mystery. He claims, for example, that he doesn’t accept money for his work, so as to maintain his independence. Where then does he get the money to support himself? We’re never told. His friends all believe that he comes from a wealthy background, but Cunningham says his family is working class. We’re told that he once worked as a milliner, but we’re not told why he left that. We learn that Cunningham goes to church every Sunday, but he refuses to discuss religion. He refuses to discuss his love life. The closest we get to a personal revelation is when Cunningham tells us that his parents disapproved of his interest in fashion, because they didn’t think it was a proper pursuit for a man.

Cunnigham often takes pictures at fancy dinner parties where many of New York’s rich and famous people go, yet he leads a Spartan life. He lives in a studio crammed with filing cabinets full of negatives. He sleeps on a mattress on top of milk crates. We see him in a deli eating a bacon-and-egg sandwich. “They have such good sandwiches here,” he enthuses. When a party is held in his honor in Paris, he shows up with his camera and takes pictures as if he were on another one of his assignments.

At the time this film was made (2010), Cunningham was living in the Carnegie Hall Studios. The film discusses how he and other residents were about to be evicted, so their studios could be turned into office spaces. We see Cunningham with a couple of other residents of the studios, who have lived there since the 1940’s. (I’m not making this up.) This gives the film a bittersweet feel; Cunningham seems to belong to a world that is coming to an end.

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