Every day, Bill Cunningham gets on his bicycle and snaps away at the streets of Manhattan, from society fetes to SoHo streetcorners. Clad in his blue work smock, the 80+ photographer has devoted his life to documenting not only New York fashion, but fashion around the world. He works at The New York Times, and has produced two photographic standbys—“On the Street,” where he photographs New York street style, and “Evening Hours,” a society column—every week for forty or so years. Cunningham has photographed everyone from Greta Garbo to Anna Wintour, and millions of mere mortals in between. His work is a historical record of fashion. But his humility never lets any of that show.
Perhaps this is why director and cinematographer Richard Press took on the project of making Bill’s life and work in to a documentary. “Bill Cunningham New York” was released this month for exclusive engagements in New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles before finding its way to theatres all across the country at the beginning of summer.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of the screenings (they’re almost all sold out up until the last screening day on March 29) at Film Forum, a landmark non-profit independent movie house in the West Village. With just four small theatres, Film Forum plays the movies film lovers love, from older films like Taxi Driver to the latest avant-garde Italian cinema releases.
Every seat in the theatre was filled. Honestly, it wasn’t too much of a surprise considering the number of people in New York alone who read the Times, love fashion, love New York and, of course, love Bill’s work. Though I grew up far from New York, every Sunday morning meant reading the SundayStyles section of the New York Times. I ceremoniously spread the paper out over the carpet in my family’s den and took in every detail of the Style section, especially Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street.” New York was always the dream and when I was able to see Bill’s photographs, I felt that much closer to achieving it. What were they wearing in New York, an epicenter of the cultural universe? Bright colors, bold furs, beautiful shoes—Bill saw it, and he showed me. I never felt too far away.
The film gave a world of insight to the life of this man, who is humble beyond comprehension (he even snapped away at his own award ceremony, when the French Ministry of Culture honored him with the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres). He has literally donated his life to his work, sleeping amongst filing cabinets filled with his photographs, and in the process has become one of the most revered fashion documentarians in the world. Even Harold Koda, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, thinks so. And in the film, everyone from Anna Wintour to Brooke Astor sing his praises. One of my favorite scenes shows a group of photographers asking Anna to pause for a picture, but the only one she pauses for is Bill.
He is a creature of habit, shooting color film on his manual camera, eating four-dollar breakfast sandwiches at corner greasy spoons, riding around town on his bicycle. He is consumed by his work and knows no other life, really. What the film shows, though, is his humanity. That he is not just a Times photographer responsible for documenting however many decades of fashion history, but rather a man whose career successes outweigh his personal life entirely. The film brings up the question of Bill’s sexuality, if he has ever been in a relationship, and what his active role in his religion—he goes to church every Sunday—means to him in the face of that. Bill answers, saying no, he’s never been in a relationship, and his religious family didn’t think of fashion as a manly pursuit so it was difficult for them to understand. A few seconds pass and he starts to cry. Watching the film, I felt Bill almost forces himself to live this way, suppressing and even punishing himself to live without what he calls “urges.” That particular scene was heartbreaking, but it made me understand what I was watching that much more. Bill could not find beauty in himself, so he devoted his life to finding beauty elsewhere.
“Bill Cunningham New York” is wonderful, though, because it shows Bill loving the world. Seeing him being inspired is inspiring in itself. It reminds us that yes, of course Bill Cunningham’s work is important, but the artist himself is also important. He is a staple to fashion and to New York, but he is also a kindred spirit to anyone who has found passion and love in their work. In the end, we are happy there is beauty in the world for him to love, and hope to catch a glimpse of him on his bicycle.