BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK. Starring Bill Cunningham. Directed by Richard Press. Rated PG (Incidental coarse language). 84 min.
This documentary tells the story about the life of an extraordinary individual, Bill Cunningham, who also stars in the film. He is a fashion photographer whose shots have chronicled society for the New York Times for decades. For years, he has photographed fashion trends and the goings-on of people in high society for the Time’s Style section. His passion for photography is all-consuming, as he cycles through the streets of New York looking for street shots that not only tell a story about fashion, but depict the idiosyncrasies of New York, and the people who inhabit the city.
The documentary was made by following him around New York for two years, pursuing him into Charity and fashion shows. Interspersed with shots of Cunningham himself, there are affectionate anecdotes from friends and people he has photographed. The interviews and conversations create an intimate portrait of a very eccentric person, highly respected for his oddness and his skill as a photographer.
Cunningham lives in virtual poverty. He wears worn jackets, has only five pieces of clothing, eats cheap lunches, and is asked to leave his meagre residence in uptown New York, where he lives in a small studio that has no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall. His room is full of filing cabinets stuffed with negatives of every shot he has ever taken. In his new apartment, he asks for parts of his kitchen to be removed so that he can fit in more filing cabinets.
There is nothing meagre about his work, however. Cunningham is widely respected as a great interpreter of New York. He restlessly pursues spontaneity, and the chance to capture the expression of others. The film tells you, for instance, that he loves taking pictures of people in the rain because if they don’t see you, they won’t put on airs, and become people they are not. So passionate is he about his work, he takes photos of guests who have come to honour him in Paris, while he is waiting to accept an award.
Through Cunningham’s lenses, and infectious personality, the documentary supplies a fascinating vision of the city of Manhattan. Its restless energy is captured by the frenetic activity of Cunningham, as he subtly dictates the world of fashion in New York. His uniqueness, style of living, and mode of work, make him a very unlikely person to set trends, but he does.
Now 82, Cunningham still writes a column for the New York Times, called “On the Street”. Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of “American Vogue”, who was the subject of “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), considers that if Cunningham doesn’t shoot you at a fashion show, it means the death of you. His life, though, is never fully revealed. No one knows a lot about him, and his devotion to Catholicism, and to his working class origins hints at issues he cares deeply about. One of the few times he gets emotional in the movie is when he is being questioned about the importance of religion, which obviously matters a great deal to him in ways we don’t quite know why.
This is a documentary about a person who cares nothing at all about status, celebrities, fashion “power” or what celebrities pursue. He is simply after the perfect shot that captures what a woman wants to express, so defining fashion as it evolves. It is a warm and very human documentary of immense interest to anyone concerned with either fashion, or the oddities of talented people. The portrait of the man that the film creates is gently drawn, funny and very engaging. It is a film about an ageing person, and a creative one, who has unbelievable energy, and who literally devours New York through his camera. He lunges, snaps, and goes back into his solitude.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out November, 2011.