Monday, June 20, 2011


When I walked out onto the sidewalk after seeing Bill Cunningham New York it was almost as if I was seeing the world through new eyes. I was really looking at the other people walking these same sidewalks. I had a new awareness of those sharing space on the planet with me, how they were dressed, how they carried themselves. This effect wasn’t achieved through any formal trickery or filmmaking fantasy in the documentary. No, this sense of a retrained eye came from mere exposure to Bill Cunningham. This film offers a chance to spend time with a fascinating fellow and emerge feeling richer for the experience.

To call Bill Cunningham a fashion photographer would be a great understatement. He’s a fashion chronicler. The 83-year-old photographer has, since 1978, created a feature for The New York Times called “On the Street” which captures people, both well known and unknown, wearing the clothes they happened to put on for that particular day. Bill rides around New York City on his bicycle, wearing a blue smock with his camera draped around his neck. When he spots someone with an interesting or striking outfit or accessory he leaps into action, framing and documenting whatever it is that jumps out at him. He says he uses his lens like a pen. He’s not just a photographer, he’s a scribbler, a compiler, a man with a loving and generous eye for the way we wear what we wear. His longevity allows him to spot not only striking images but to bring trends and patterns to the forefront and draw connection to the trends and patterns of fashion past.

Rather than proceeding like a purely biographical documentary, scrupulously chronological and lots of talking heads, director Richard Press lets us get to know Bill primarily by observing him. We talk to neighbors, friends, and colleagues and watch snippets of archival footage, but observing Bill often tells us the most. Like a great long-form magazine profile, the film drops in on the life of a fascinating person and allows the experience to reveal rare corners of everyday life. Why, this man is out on the streets of New York day in and day out and how often does he go entirely unnoticed to so many who walk by?

What a mere profile would never reveal is what a joy it is to be around him. How could words ever capture the way his eyes light up when he speaks, the infectiousness of his crinkly smile, the speed and level of alertness he displays as he races to catch a photograph of the latest outfit to catch his eye? He’s thin and unassuming. He’s gentle and loving. He’s generous with his time. In fact, here’s a man who gets to spend every single waking moment consumed by his life’s great passion. From the outside, it appears that he’s living exactly the life he wants to. He’s a humble, happy artist who never once seems to take advantage of the acclaim and access he has achieved. When he accepts an award in Paris, his acceptance speech is a thoroughly charming jumble of French and English that ends in tears. Reader, I got teary right along with him.

The glimpses of his interior life that can be gleaned from the documentary don’t dull the outward impressions. Rather, they paint a complicated portrait of a man who has been so driven for so long that he wouldn’t know any other way to live. He has a small rent-controlled apartment that is filled with file cabinets containing all of his negatives. He has a sparse wardrobe. About his meals he has this to say: “The cheaper the better.” When asked, in a particularly vulnerable and revealing scene, about love, about spirituality, and about his relationships thereof, he tears up. Rather than prying, the documentarian backs off and lets the silence speak for itself. Do we know exactly what Bill is thinking? No. But somehow it just feels better that way. After all, a picture is most definitely worth a thousand words, especially for a man who serves day in and day out as a mirror, happiest when showing us ourselves.

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