People often talk about living life on your own terms, but in Bill Cunningham New York we are shown an example of someone who has actually done it. Photographer Cunningham spends his days on the street in New York City, bicycling from place to place to take fashion photos of street style — clothing and trends captured in the wild, modeled by trendsetters both notable and unknown, going about their days and evening hours in the big city.
Director and cinematographer Richard Press spent eight years convincing Bill Cunningham to be filmed, then two more shooting and editing this documentary, his first feature. The result makes it all time well spent. We find Cunningham entering his eighties, still hard at work for the New York Times as it makes an uncertain transition to digital media, and he is being transitioned out of his tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building. The veteran photographer is at once established and celebrated, yet modest and reflective — while still an astoundingly active, opinionated maverick.
The pulse and the daily cycle of New York’s streets are caught here thrillingly. Shoes, hemlines, capes, hats, leggings, blouses, handbags, scarves, dresses, coats and cleavage all swirl past the thin man with the camera. When something interesting catches his eye, he shoots. Soon, he’s back on his Schwinn, swiftly threading his way through dicey traffic to observe again someplace else — or to review, edit, and assemble his photos for the Times (currently presented online as weekly “Bill Cunningham: On The Street” slideshows).
By night, Bill Cunningham’s camera samples a full slate of social events — galas, galleries, banquets and birthday parties glittering with high society jewels and bohemian trailblazing. He is esteemed by Brooke Astor, Anna Wintour, and Annette de la Renta, and a seat is always waiting for him along the runways in Paris.
At the same time, the man is virtually a monk. His tiny apartment above Carnegie Hall is barely more than a closet in which to keep his extensive files. He has no romantic life, and maintains a strict ethical code which permits him zero indulgence of any kind at these lavish gatherings — not even a glass of water. He doesn’t care about food. He used to enjoy church music, but no longer has time. Most importantly, while living and working in the very capital of capitalism, Cunningham has no interest in money. He’s been known to rip up paychecks. “You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he laughs.
This wisdom is dispensed during reminiscences with Annie Flanders, founder of the original Details Magazine, where Cunningham’s work once flourished. He started in fashion making his own line of hats, but then was drafted into the Army in 1951. His personal history is told gradually, in between shooting sessions and laundromats, over quick meals at diners and during visits with friends. One of the most colorful of these is Editta Sherman, a nearly 100-year-old Bohemian grande dame who is Cunningham’s Carnegie Hall neighbor and fellow photographer.
This film unfolds at a perfect pace, lingering momentarily now and then to catch an expression or an atmospheric detail, but then, like Cunningham, moving along to look at another piece of a vast puzzle. In the end, we’re left with a beautiful mosaic of daily life in Manhattan and an inspiring portrait of its great witness, tuned to the expression of life through clothing and style, out in the sunshine as well as the sleet with a twinkle in his keen eye.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and rate it four stars out of four.