Bill Cunningham New York tells me so little about its subject, and yet I feel as if I know who Bill Cunningham is. He is, first and foremost, a fashion photographer — or, as he would prefer, a cultural anthropologist — for The New York Times. Now in his early eighties, he still rides up and down the streets of New York on his bicycle, always with his Nikon camera around his neck, always ready to take pictures of people and the clothes they wear. He has been doing this for decades, and in all likelihood, he will continue to do it until he suddenly drops dead. To be sure, he’s not at all interested in celebrities, or even in fashion trends; he photographs clothing simply because clothing is what he loves. What I find wonderful about him is that he enjoys what he does, and he’s genuinely happy. He gets by financially and lives modestly, but oh, what I wouldn’t give for even half of what he has.
Those who know him best really don’t know him at all. Indeed, we only get scraps of his personal life, and this is after director Richard Press gently but firmly grills him about it. There will come a point at which he asks the inevitable question about Cunningham’s love life, or lack thereof. Cunningham, with remarkable good humor, retorts with the question, “Are you asking if I’m gay?” Perhaps he is, but we’ll never know; he doesn’t answer the director’s question. He does, however, reveal that he has never actually had sex. This doesn’t seem to bother him. His life has been nothing but work, and he’d rather be doing that than just about anything else in the world. When discussing his Christian faith, which he takes very seriously, he actually gets choked up. What are we supposed to make of this? Why should we make anything out of it at all? It’s important to him, and that’s all that matters.
Cunningham’s photos have had a remarkable influence on the fashion industry, which is interesting given the fact that he has never been a trendsetter and has no intention of ever becoming one. It’s not about what he thinks is fashionable; it’s about documenting fashion as dictated by the masses. He is himself no slave to fashion. He wears humble clothing and often wears the smocks worn by garbage men. The reason is simple: They have lots of pockets, which are useful to hold his many rolls of film. At the start of the documentary, he was a tenant in an artist’s studio in Carnegie Hall. Were he not so dedicated to his craft, one might consider him a hoarder — his apartment was filled with filing cabinets and old boxes bursting with negatives. As the film progresses, we see him getting evicted and moving into a rent-controlled apartment overlooking Central Park. To make room for his cabinets, he has the kitchen removed. He doesn’t need a kitchen when there are plenty of delis and diners at his disposal. He eats sparingly, and always on the run.
He has earned the respect of some of the biggest fashion icons, including Iris Apfel, Michael Kors, Tom Wolfe, and Carmen Dell’Orefice. “I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill,” says Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. “It’s one snap, two snaps — or he ignores you, which is death.” We even see former United Nations diplomat Shail Upadhya, who dresses as if he survived an explosion at a textile mill. But whatever we might feel about how he dresses, or how anyone presented in the documentary dresses, is entirely inconsequential; what matters is that they’re of particular interest to Cunningham, simply because he’s fascinated by people being individuals. Back in 1978, his attention was caught by a beautiful fur coat worn by a woman. He took no interest in the woman, only in the coat. It was only later he learned that its wearer was none other than Greta Garbo.
Without really meaning to do so, he’s often times the first to document trends in fashion, and as a result, editors of the field study his work. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street,” he says at one point. “Always has been, always will be.” He goes on to say, “If you just cover the designers in the shows, that’s only one facet. You also need the street and the evening hours. If you cover the three things, you have the full picture of what people are doing.” Rest assured, he does attend higher end fashion events, appropriately dressed. He will not, however, accept any catered meals, not even a glass of water. “If you don’t take money,” he says, “they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.” Such refreshing honesty, especially in an age when people do what they do because they get paid for it.
So many documentaries are about political scandals, ideological stances, crimes against humanity, and other such heavy handed subjects. I think I enjoyed this film so immensely because it’s about nothing other than a very happy man. We should all be so lucky as Bill Cunningham, a man who lives authentically and makes no apologies for it. Bill Cunningham New York is an amazingly insightful documentary, in part because of its examination of fashion but more so because of its approach to its title subject. There’s no judgment, no coercion, no manipulative tactics on the part of its filmmakers — it’s as simple, honest, and direct as Cunningham himself. I know next to nothing about fashion, and yet I had a smile on my face the entire time. My sincerest hope is that it will have the same effect on those who watch it. With any luck, that will be many people.