Once again, my wonderfully geeky brother has come to my cultural rescue. He told me I absolutely had to watch this documentary about this old guy, a photographer, who lived in New York: “It’s about fashion, and art, and New York. Watch it, you will love it, you will cry.” That’s how he sold it to me, although he didn’t need to. He only had to say “art” and “fashion” and he knew I would already be all over it.
Bill Cunningham New York is a small documentary, its subject deceptively small as well. Mr. Cunningham is a fashion photographer in New York. At the time the documentary was made he was 81 years-old. For over 3 decades he has biked around the city photographing fashion and street life. He has two columns in the New York Times, one about street fashion and the other about social life in New York.
In order to document fashion in the city, he takes pictures of everyday New Yorkers on the street. He also photographs well-known people and socialites at galas, gallery openings, charity events, all the big parties happening in New York. Lastly, he photographs the fashion collections in New York and Paris. This way, he explains, he is able to really report to the public what is happening with fashion in the city and in the world. Through his work, he becomes much more than a fashion photographer, working more like a fashion historian, an “anthropologist” as some call him, capturing and preserving the look of the city through the decades.
Bill says of his work: “I don’t provide the point of view, the street tells me what the point of view is.” He discovers the trends by observing people in their everyday lives on the street. “One year,” he explains, “it was all about the t-shirts with glasses on them; everybody was wearing them.” His columns are about themes: “all legs and shoes,” “skirts above the knee,” or people jumping through puddles on a rainy day. In this sense, he is a channel for what the street is saying, capturing and documenting the patterns and trends as they are actually occurring. And despite the profound knowledge of fashion he has accumulated, his approach is essentially non-judgmental.
Visually, the documentary evokes this non-judgmental approach as well, capturing Mr. Cunningham at work and simply presenting him to us. The camera doesn’t linger for too long, it can’t, as he is constantly on the move. The camera follows him on the street, through the traffic on his bike, and to his tiny apartment at Carnegie Hall. The light jazz soundtrack, the noisy and busy streets, the unassuming directness of Mr. Cunningham, the daring fashions of everyday people, all capture the essence of New York and New Yorkers: fast, honest, direct, filled with beauty, strangeness, individuality.
His philosophy about the relationship between the artist and his art is stern and profound. Working for a fashion magazine in the 80’s, he did a series of photographs showing normal women on the street wearing the latest designs as interpreted by them. He then also put together the pictures of the original designs as worn by models on the runway. He wanted to show how fashion trickles down from the high fashion shows onto the street. The magazine took these series of photos and made it into a best and worst column, ridiculing and critiquing the women for how they were wearing the clothes. He was mortified. It was never his intent to judge or to criticize but to report and to admire. He felt most ashamed to the women he had photographed. He quit that job after that. “Never accept money,” he says on another occasion, “this way they don’t own you, they can’t tell you what to do.”
There is something very moving about Bill Cunningham. He is truly a pure artist and despite all the admiration and accolades he receives everyday from colleagues and industry greats (including Anna Wintour, ultra-famous and glamorous American Vogue editor), he remains an enigma even to those closest to him.
As most of us continue to fall in the traps and needs of daily life; the need for love, money, food, professional recognition, material possessions; whatever it is that we search for and accumulate in our lives, Bill Cunningham seems to really have done away with the desire for any of those things, motivated only and purely by the search for beauty and art. It’s ironic of course that somebody who photographs clothes has an almost inexistent wardrobe and lives in a cramped apartment filled with filing cabinets full of photographs, but as we see in the documentary, worldly possessions or status are not the things he values at all. A well cut dress, a crazy outfit wore by somebody on the street, a conversation with friends about art, discovering the patterns of life with his camera: these seem to be his food and his sustenance.
There is a moving scene during Fashion Week in Paris. We see him stranded, trying to get pass some security at a fashion show until a show organizer sees him and tells the security, “this is Bill, he’s the most important person in the world.” The woman gently takes him by his arm and leads him inside. Small and unassuming, he gets lost in the crowd but his work does not. When in Paris, Bill is named a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, in recognition of his work. He closes his wonderful speech with these words: “It’s as true today as it ever was, he who seeks beauty, will find it.”
I can’t think of a more worthy way to live our lives.