Archive Reviews

Review of a Lovely Film About the Photographer Bill Cunningham

  • Still from

    Still from "Bill Cunningham New York."

  • Still from

    Still from "Bill Cunningham New York."

  • Still from

    Still from "Bill Cunningham New York."

Bill Cunningham’s New York

2011  |  The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine

Chroniclers of New York life have long satirised the skyscraper-sized ambitions and sprawling egos of its inhabitants. “New York is about status; that’s all it’s about,” declares Tom Wolfe in a charming new film about Bill Cunningham, an octogenarian fashion photographer. As it happens, Mr Cunningham has long staked his living on the aesthetic signs of ego and status, documenting the city’s denizens like they are so many peacocks in a zoo.

Mr Cunningham’s work has graced the posh Style section of the New York Times for decades. But despite years of rubbing shoulders with bold-faced names, he seems entirely uncorrupted. A modest man, he won’t even accept a glass of water at parties, much less a free lunch. He tends to scoff at celebrities “with their free dresses”, and ignore the glittering guest lists at events.

With “Bill Cunningham New York,” Richard Press has created a simple and engaging film. It is full of interviews with notable people who are keen to hold forth on Mr Cunningham’s contributions to fashion and photography. But the man himself has some unexpected charms. A good-natured aesthete from a Catholic, working-class family, he spent decades as a resident of the Carnegie Hall studios, living in a tiny room crammed with a single bed and filing cabinets stuffed with negatives. In an especially poignant scene, he admits that he has never had a romantic relationship. He still goes to church.

No fan of “cookie cutter” fashion, Mr Cunningham has been an important chronicler of style for decades. He hovers on street corners awaiting signs of a burgeoning trend, which he documents in his “On the Street” column. “I let the street speak to me,” he says. “There are no short cuts.”  His own sparse wardrobe consists of the same blue jackets worn by Parisian street cleaners. He rides his bike in this humble uniform, careening precariously (and without a helmet) through Manhattan’s traffic in search of the perfect shot.

He snaps socialites, philanthropists, hipsters, dandies, artists and fashionistas for his “Evening Hours” column. Mr Press’s film includes interviews with some of these colourful characters, such as Shail Upadhya, a retired Nepalese diplomat who wears outrageously patterned suits, and Iris Apfel, a quirkily bespectacled 89-year-old fashion muse.

Everyone seems to love Mr Cunningham, from Brooke Astor (shown at her 100th birthday party) to the staff at events. Even Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, defrosts around him. “We all get dressed for Bill,” she says with a smile.

Mr Cunningham says he wanders around fashion shows hoping to see some “marvellous exotic bird of paradise” (the “a” in “marvellous” stretched out with his strong Boston accent). His egalitarian spirit persists, even at the Paris shows. “If a normal woman can’t wear it, I’m not interested,” he says.

A relentless perfectionist, Mr Cunningham is seen on film arguing with an art director at the Timesover the precise placement of each photo, which invariably flatter his subjects. He was distraught when, decades ago, Women’s Wear Daily altered his text to mock the women he had photographed.

“I try to play a straight game,” he says. Though he admits with a laugh that in New York this is like “Don Quixote fighting windmills.”

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