A recent study by IBM analysts revealed that in times of economic downturn, the majority of women wear higher heels. This is a tendency born out of a wish to live in an extravagant fantasy world where dressing up is an everyday thing. While Bill Cunningham may not have heard of this theory, he probably doesn’t need a study to tell him these kinds of things. Cunningham has been pounding the New York City pavement for decades as a fashion photographer, taking photos of everyday people who happen to grab his eye. These turn in to one of his two pages in The New York Times, chronicling the current trends of the public. The other page he dedicates to high society’s fashion tastes of the moment. The plainly and aptly titled Bill Cunningham New York offers a delightful glimpse in to the unusual and charming life of this fashion icon.
His unique strategy of taking non-staged snaps of men and women out and about demystifies the fashion culture somewhat, as he places any man, woman, or child on the same level as the most famous models on the runways of Milan. This attitude of equality in fashion seems to have been with him all of his life. Before he committed to photography, Cunningham was a milliner with a hat salon that was visited by Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford. While they were some of the biggest stars of the day, he claims that he “had no interest because they weren’t stylish.” As Anna Wintour, the grand dame of the fashion world and editor-in-chief at Vogue, claims: “We all get dressed for Bill.” He is just as likely to take a picture of a bag lady as he is a tall blond strutting in high heels and a sparkly dress.
Though the film is heavy on anecdotes and personal stories, Cunningham is an enigmatic character in many ways. He admits to never having had a romantic relationship, but casually chalks it up to not having enough time. Those who know him say that they know little about his past, some speculating that he comes from a wealthy family due to his ease in high society surroundings and functions. This might also explain his tendency to not accept money for many of his assignments. When Details Magazine was sold to Conde Nast, Cunningham never picked up the check containing his share of the sale. There remains footage from 1989, wherein a young man asked him about this. He playfully tells him that “Conde Nast owns the magazine but they don’t own me. Money is the cheapest thing; liberty, freedom is expensive.” He is a particular kind of artist that New York cultivated in the 1960′s, when this ability to dismiss money was a possibility. He has lived in the artist’s apartments of Carnegie Hall for decades, and at the time of filming was one of only six remaining residents. The film catches him in a period of transition, just before he and the others are forced out of their homes to make room for telemarketers. His space is crammed full of file cabinets containing his negatives and photos from decades of parties, fashion shows, and street photography. For all of the seeming glamour that one would expect with Cunningham’s career, he is a minimalist to a shocking degree. He owns a good collection of fashion books, a small bed, and a few changes of clothes. He even refuses to buy a new rain poncho when he can just patch up his old one with tape. “I know this embarrasses everybody,” he says while slapping on patches of duct tape. “It doesn’t embarrass me!” This isn’t the typical modern fashion photographer who strives to live up to the expectations of the industry. Rather, he is a unique artist who carved out a niche for himself and has remained there comfortably ever since.
Bill Cunningham moves at a brisk but unhurried pace, flowing evenly from one person’s story about Cunningham to the next without losing its focus. It is well shot, but certainly not flashy or sexy like recent biodocs about Anna Wintour (The September Issue) and Yves Saint-Laurent (L’Amour Fou). It isn’t ground-breaking or hard-hitting, but it’s not trying to be. Director Richard Press seems to know that this loosely structured, lighthearted but soulful film is more in line with his subject. Aside from the forced removal of the artists from Carnegie Hall, there is no narrative or framing story. It is simply a portrait of the artist as an older man, and works quite beautifully as such. Those who go in to the film without a great awareness of Cunningham’s career trajectory might be slightly confused by the chronology of some of the events in his life, such as the exact dates he went from one publication to the next. That detracts little from the the enjoyment of it as a work of art.
During a sojourn to Paris for fashion week, Cunningham is awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In his speech, he reiterates his belief that fashion is about the clothes and not the glitz and celebrity. His final words,“He who seeks beauty will find it,” sum up both his mission in life and the accomplishment of the film itself.
Bill Cunningham New York is in cinemas now – find a screening here