Bill Cunningham is an unlikely subject for a documentary since like most photographers, he’d much rather be doing the documenting. As a staple of the Sunday New York Times Style section, Cunningham has been responsible for illustrating society high and low with the “Evening Hours” and “On the Street” columns that cover the entire strata of fashion in the city. And beyond the fact that it apparently took director Richard Press a decade to convince the notoriously private Cunningham to serve as the basis for a film, while the city and its denizens have changed dramatically in the half-century Cunningham has taken pictures, the photographer has not.
Outfitted in the same blue jacket he picked up decades ago and on his 29th Schwinn bike (since he’s had 28 stolen from him over the years), Cunningham glides effortlessly down 5th Avenue from his apartment right above Carnegie Hall, forsaking the luxury of the people he photographs for a complete dedication to chronicling what they wear. He won’t drink at the parties, the bed in his cramped apartment is merely an inconvenience on his way to voluminous file cabinets, and he hardly takes notice of cabs that threaten to hit him in the street as he snaps pictures with one hand on his camera and another on a handlebar. Such commitment has earned him the respect and time of the likes of Anna Wintour and the late Brooke Astor, who make rare on-camera appearances to attest to Cunningham’s discrete charms, though it has left him without much of a life to call his own.
“Bill Cunningham New York” makes few judgments in this regard, ultimately bringing up the photographer’s lack of any real relationships aside from the one to his camera as something other than a quirky character trait near the end of the film. It’s that reticence both of the subject and filmmaker Richard Press of delving much deeper that keeps it mostly on the surface, but then again, that’s the most accurate way to approach Cunningham, who at one point sees a throng of paparazzi around Catherine Deneuve and asks why anyone cares about anything but what she wears. Fortunately for Press, Cunningham is naturally charismatic, an ease with people that’s likely come with decades of asking them to take their picture, and has some endemic drama with the impending eviction from his Carnegie Hall perch, of which only he and the nonagenarian artist Editta Sherman still pay a rent-controlled $530 a month.
One might think the main appeal of “Bill Cunningham New York” would be the hook of a survivor story since Cunningham’s immediately distinguishing trait is that he’s still taking photographs well into his eighties, capturing the trends that dictate the style of generations well behind him. However, it’s the single-mindedness of Cunningham about his work that is so infectious as well as so strange, given that he prides himself on blending into a crowd when he prizes those who stand out more than all else. Though it might’ve been against his own wishes, it’s something of a privilege for the rest of us that he’s been allowed to stand out with his own film since the only thing more fleeting these days than the fashion Cunningham has illustrated in the pages of the Times is the passion he holds for his craft.
“Bill Cunningham New York” is now open in New York and Los Angeles.