‘Bill Cunningham New York’, a film by Richard Press
‘We all get dressed for Bill’, Anna Wintour, US Vogue Editor-in-Chief
‘Money is the cheapest thing, freedom is the most expensive’, Bill Cunningham
‘Bill Cunningham New York’ is remarkably tender portrait of a unique and inspirational individual, a Schwinn-riding cultural anthropologist who has for decades chronicled ‘On the Street’ fashion trends and as well as the opulent outfits worn by the city’s social elite, spending his ‘Evening Hours’ photographing bright young things at high society charity soirees, downtown divas and elegant elderly aristocrats for his columns in The New York Times.
Having dropped out of Harvard, Cunningham moved to New York in 1948 founding a millinery firm, William J., popular with the likes of Ginger Rodgers and Marilyn Monroe, about whom Cunningham is amusingly disparaging. Drafted into the US army, William J was forced out of business. It was on his return to New York that Cunningham began writing for the Chicago Tribune and later for Women’s Wear Daily. However, it was at Details Magazine, under the editorship of Annie Flanders that Cunningham flourished. Famously denying payment, Cunningham was not only a priceless but an indefatigable contributor to the magazine, producing beautiful spreads and introducing American audiences to the work of such fashion luminaries as Azzedine Alaia and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
It was the photographer David Montgomery that gave Bill his first camera, an event which coincided with the initial documentation of street style. A day spent in the Sheep Meadows photographing the flower children of the mid 1960s proved pivotal for Bill, from then on he spent his Saturdays in Soho and his Sundays in the park photographing the beauty and the idiosyncrasy he felt himself surrounded by. A self-confessed fashion fanatic Cunningham has for decades practiced an almost religious dedication to his work resulting in a vast archive of photographic negatives stored in hoards of filing cabinets which dominate his tiny apartment, a startling space with no kitchen, no bathroom and space only for a makeshift bed amid a mass of fashion ephemera.
‘Bill Cunningham New York’ allows the viewer an incredible insight into the life of a man so private that not even those that have known him for years know anything about his private life. We are granted the privilege then of unprecedented access, as Bill introduces us to his neighbours, fellow residents of the Carnegie Hall Studios, among them the delightfully eccentric Editta Sherman, before allowing us into his own apartment.
As well as trailing Bill riding his bike on the hunt for New Yorkers with scintillating style wearing classic and/or colourful clothes, or waiting patiently on the sidewalk for a chance sighting of a brilliant ‘bird of paradise’, the crew follow Bill to Brooke Astor’s 100th Birthday party and on to Paris where, in an incredibly moving speech he accepts the title of Officier de l’orde des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture, a speech in which he concludes with the earnest, emotive, uncomplicated yet poignantly philosophical phrase, ‘he who seeks beauty will find it’. Cunningham is humble, self-deprecating, charming, at once infectiously enthusiastic and quietly contemplative. Never having had a romantic relationship or cooked a meal for himself at home, Cunningham’s passionate devotion to his work is all consuming. Surprising also for a fashion photographer Cunningham, the film makes clear, has no interest in dressing himself in anything other than practical, utilitarian garb, owning a small selection of pastel shirts and a collection of the rich blue jackets worn by Parisian street sweepers which he wears with a tweed flat cap and a voluminous black waterproof poncho in wet weather, and yet Cunningham is innately and simply stylish. An almost childishly excitable eccentric, Cunningham proves a fascinating subject for documentary. The film closes with Cunningham’s final flippantly facetious imperative, ‘turn off the cameras, we’ve had enough of this’, eager to get back to work.
‘Bill Cunningham New York’ is out now on DVD.