Bill Cunningham, lifelong photographer, incessant original and charming recluse is a documentary-maker’s dream subject. Compiled from tagalong footage of Cunningham’s everyday life (half art, half ablutions, undetectable respite) and interviews with fashion industry stalwarts or prominent street style figures, director Richard Press has put together a thorough examination of the life of this enigmatic shutterbug. In typical New York style, the overflowing life and fashion of the city competes for focus in an enchanting film about clothes, trend cycles, high society, the fate of golden day NY creatives, and surprisingly, living modestly.
80-year-old Cunningham has been taking pictures of fashion in society, on the catwalk and in public spaces for decades. His craft is one of passivity: Cunningham never manufactures or censors his photographs, but takes on a kind of biological approach, documenting the restless ecosystem of the Big Apple. Long installed as the New York Times’ On The Street commentator, Cunningham is among the most respected image-makers in New York, indeed the world. Not for glossy spreads or elaborate studio shoots, but simply capturing what lies before him. His ability to spot new ideas is viewed by industry insiders as a yardstick for good taste. The reluctant arbiter of style is nonetheless adamantly opposed to any kind of financial gain, embodying the dictum that the work is “reward enough”, and jettisoning all sweeteners or perks. He lives by a kind of creative moral code, striving for an art of essential Platonic purity: “You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing”.
One might suspect that the society Bill documents and his own enormous legend have overwhelmed the editing chair (Ryan Denmark) a little. Interviews with the likes of Anna Wintour and Carnegie Hall resident Editta Sherman, whilst magnificent, allowed Cunningham to drift back out of shot where he is most comfortable. It is difficult to penetrate Cunningham’s life-built edifice of privacy. Any sense of Cunningham’s person dovetailed in and out of focus as the praise and vanity that his camera attracts swallowed up a number of opportunities to get to know Bill.
The film is rife with beautiful, bold and bizarre clothing. Outfits both outrageous and demure are given equal credence, as are the people who wear them, whether 1am drag queen or a Manhattan dynasty philanthropist. In fact, what is clear is that Cunningham’s work has gone a long way to democratising taste, shifting importance from who-wears-what to what-wears-who.
Bill Cunningham New York introduces a number of intersecting ideas about superficiality and the role of fashion. Perhaps most fascinating, is Cunningham’s adoption of a kind of uniform – a blue workers’ shirt, grey flatcap and black plastic poncho. I am reminded of the self-professed laziness of the young David Lynch, who filled his wardrobe with multiples of one outfit – black suit and tie, white shirt – and daily ate the same diner meal. Cunningham’s caricaturish appearance is unchanging and pragmatic, nothing like the fashion he loves to document. It’s amazing to think his fascination can remain so wholly outward.
The film also addresses fashion as a form of social or personal expression. Cunningham gives praise and exposure to anybody who wears something of interest to him, whoever they are or whatever their background. On the other, slightly darker hand, the hermit-like photographer maintains few personal relationships, and after many years behind the lens, seems to have become the camera. What I mean is, he cares little for personality if it is not contained within clothes, and apart from to commend you on your outfit, the compliment of his having photographed you effects no closer an acquaintance between you. Bill doesn’t seem to buy into the idea that clothes maketh the man.
This is particularly clear during interviews with Patrick McDonald, a flamboyant street-dandy, whose love of Cunningham’s work seems inherently bonded with his own narcissism. The socialite seems to misguidedly believe that a tribute to his outfit is a tribute to his whole being. Not so. This is not to say that important social issues or identity politics cannot be communicated well with clothes. Rather, dressing to get attention may eclipse your personal integrity if your end goal is simply to turn heads or have your picture taken. Here I shrug a little and think of those cheerless dog-collared, rave-panted, kitten-eared young kids I see on trains, who seem to take pride in subcultural uniformity and appearing unapproachable.
Cunningham’s shyness and elective plainness has without a doubt contributed a vast sense of mystery and depth to his choice of career. It certainly seems that the key to his happiness lies in the ability to enjoy observation. This seems akin to Buddhist sensibility, in which one may appreciate beauty without feeling the need to capture or own it. In fact, Cunningham’s compulsive sharing of new trends and ideas is certainly antithetical to the competitive interests of those fashionista’s who so much love his work. Yet another conundrum.
Bill Cunningham New York is the best possible manifestation of any fashion-themed movie I’ve seen. I refer of course, to those ‘chicsploitation’ films that give rise to a conflict of the intellect – yes, I’ve watched Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City 2, but ‘it was just for the clothes!’ And then here comes Bill Cunningham New York, a film about the joys of apparel, boasting a protagonist who is fascinating, principled, humble, blind or undeterred by the failings of his industry, and the unfettered progress of his city. Surely this is what fashion has to be about – making the world a more interesting and beautiful place to live in. Certainly Cunningham sees exuberant dress as some act of civic kindness, a generous donation to the life of New York. How delightful.
Bill Cunningham New York is so fun it might just encourage you to be a little braver with your streetwear. Its structure and tone mimic Cunningham’s methods – the whole film feels like an energetic walking tour of the city. Inclusion of older interview footage with Cunningham and photographs of his muses through time ensure that journey is historical as well as geographical and gives a celebratory rebirth to the idea of the artiste or avant-garde. Music is sparse but effective, the city being its own melodious cacophony for much of the film. There is a most charming application of NY Darlings Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, from their 1967 release & Nico.
Whilst having no claim to being as fashion-forward as Bill himself, I here would like to try a little trend-spotting of my own. I am no stranger to the method, as in the art world where I eagerly lurk, a kind of party game is made of naming up all that is ‘trending’ in art (graph paper, modesty, auto-ethnographic history, pine, unsealed canvas, paint-pouring, you get the idea, I hope). My claim here is that sincerity is trending. Cunningham’s most thrilling feature, especially in our proverbial ‘modern times’, is his excitement He genuinely enjoys outfits that others might make fun of, or disclaim against with some layer of irony or ambiguous post-modern wryness. I am proud to descry an increase in sincerity, in new films, new documentaries and new art: and thank goodness, because it might just help us take ourselves less seriously.
On that note, trend ho:
(Lastly, though 80 years old, Bill Cunningham has been uploaded to the chronic immediacy and accessibility of 21st century media: his weekly On The Street column for The New York Times is available in a slideshow, narrated with joy and wonder by Cunningham himself. This is certainly something to check out if you’re considering seeing the film or were left wanting more of everything Cunningham, which I most certainly did. The link is below: