Browsing the photos from this year’s New York Fashion Week, the only thing more eye-catching than the decadent ready-to-wear outfits on the streets of New York was Bill Cunningham in his signature blue uniform, who was getting up close and personal at the high-brow runway shows and exclusive parties. How could I not then write about one of my favorite documentaries, “Bill Cunningham New York.” For those who do not know, Cunningham is an iconic fashion photographer for the New York Times, known best for his street photography of fashionistas going about their day in the city. Since the late 70s, Cunningham has taken pictures for the Times, displaying his work in the columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours.”
Richard Press directed the film, which spanned the course of two years and shows Cunningham in his natural habitat (riding his bicycle around New York City) and chronicles the changes in fashion over the decades. I should also care to mention that Cunningham is now 85 years old, still working tirelessly everyday to find the greatest living, breathing masterpiece of the city. While everybody loves Cunningham for his work ethic and artistic eye (including Anna Wintour and Michael Kors), nobody truly knows who this man is. It was Press’ goal to reveal the mysterious man behind the camera, exposing his infectious personality and the history that has shaped it.
The reason why I love this film is because it shows Cunningham’s raw passion for photography and fashion. This obsession has only enhanced with age, something that does not limit Cunningham from producing more fantastic images. Observing him in his studio apartment (kitchen and bathroom not included), surrounded by stacks of photographs, you realize that Cunningham is not doing this work for the money. Surrounded by gorgeous socialites and aristocrats, Cunningham strives to remain in the shadows in order to capture the most candid shot. While everybody loves to see Cunningham at an event, he would prefer not to be noticed. He insists that it is the clothing that should remain the center of attention, not himself.
This sense of solitude is a large theme in the film. While Cunningham in many ways lives a secluded life, it is a life dedicated to a single pursuit. Because most of us are not able to focus on a goal with such “religious fervor,” Cunningham’s character is viewed as both unique and awe-inspiring. Carina Chocano of the New York Times, states that, “Cunningham has molded himself into the designated noticer and interpreter of the city, a kind of Lorax of New York fashion,” and I would have to agree with her. Even Anna Wintour admits that, “we all get dressed for Bill.” He observes from a distance, camera in hand, waiting to see what speaks to him, and perhaps one day you will be reading the Times to find yourself included in a collage of dyed faux furs or bedazzled backpacks created by the loveable grandfather of fashion himself.