There are few people in fashion who are actually articulate about their craft, genuinely humble and infectiously joyful. Bill Cunningham, long-time New York Times street photographer, is one of these people. Way before Tommy Ton and the Sartorialst, Cunningham has been prolifically documenting New York street style and the fashion world for half a century. Unlike Tommy Ton and the Sartorialist, Cunningham tends to mix it up more with the real people of the street instead of focusing on those who mill about outside of the world’s various Fashion Week venues.
In Bill Cunningham NY, the director gives us a sneak peek at his tiring process, his rich yet minimal social life but most importantly, his love for fashion. One would expect a well-known and extremely successful darling of the fashion world would turn into a Terry Richardson-type modelizer or someone who takes advantage of his networks to acquire free clothes or even lend his style to a lucrative ad campaign. As you’ll see in this documentary, Cunningham basically wears the same thing day in and day out. “Why buy something new?” he says as he puts tape over the holes in his poncho.
Cunningham definitely has an eye unlike any other street photographer but instead of being swept up by the overt eclecticism and attention-whoring of the fashion world, he’s an aesthetic purist. He truly cares about the clothes and how they’re worn, always placing celebrity second. Even his film development is a no frills process (that’s right, he still uses film) as we see him using his ho-hum uptown 1-hour photo mart. Not to say he doesn’t enjoy some of the glamourous aspects of the fashion world; he enthusiastically coos over the many lovely ladies in his shots to the Times Art Producer. One wonders whether there is more to Cunningham than just his work. The film shows very little but there are a few revealing moments about his personal life. I had a nice debate with Adam about whether Bill suffers from OCD or maybe has other mental health issues. Is Bill truly happy? Does he have a secret mansion somewhere on the Upper East Side? Does he have a secret male or female lover on the Upper West Side? Is his creativity a product of his repressed upbringing? Is the director trying to portray him as a mad loner genius hiding in his photography or an enlightened individual who isn’t affected by societal norms? Does it even matter?
What I can say for sure is that Bill Cunningham built his career on being hardworking, trustworthy and most importantly passionate. The more I think about the film, the more I love it. One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Check it out.
Playing at the Carlton now.