The Stunning World of ‘Bill Cunningham New York’

Watching this documentary is a fitting tribute to the legendary street-style photographer and cultural anthropologist.
Bill Cunningham New York
Zeitgeist Films
By  · Published on June 28th, 2016

“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. You can’t do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” – Bill Cunningham

It was an evening in March 2010 when Richard Press’ breathtaking documentary Bill Cunningham New York opened the New Directors, New Films festival at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (I think) I briefly spotted Bill Cunningham at the after-party that night. Or maybe I dreamed that I did. It is documented that the legendary street-fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who passed away last Saturday in Manhattan at age 87 (after surviving a stroke just days before), never saw the film. Not that evening, not ever. And he apparently said he would only attend the after-party if he could work it; no doubt to photograph those with a sense of style he found most distinctive, idiosyncratic and/or elegant. So he might have been there (and probably was there), shooting the standouts of the crowd.

After all, Bill Cunningham did exactly that for over 5 decades (technically even longer; he once said he’s been documenting people on the street since WWII), as chronicled in Press’ vibrant and entrancing documentary. He spent nearly 4 of those at The New York Times, where he reported on street style and fashion at his “On The Street” column by day and covered exclusive social events around the city by night. In addition to his bike (he was at bike number 29 during the filming of the doc, as he got the previous 28 stolen) and camera, his day-time gear consisted of comfy trousers and a cheap, functional blue utility jacket he once spotted on Paris street workers and had bought in bulk ever since. At nighttime events, he slipped into his respectable plain dark suit. His work philosophy was to be invisible, while his artistic and journalistic goal was to capture honest, interesting, and off-the-cuff moments. He was unique in the way he spotted individuality and interpreted fashion like no one else would. His choice of low-profile outfits and lifestyle helped activate that singular sharpness even further. He never wanted to be in the center. Instead, he decisively blended himself in the background, let the city streets take the center stage, and reveal what was happening in the trenches of the real world. Through his work, Bill Cunningham not only documented, but also celebrated it all.

The exquisite Bill Cunningham New York, which is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and Hulu, deserves an urgent revisit not only as a means to pay a timely tribute to an irreplaceable cultural anthropologist, but also for its profuse understanding and delivery of its inimitable subject. Press’ film functions as a fascinating and intimate character study first and foremost (that even briefly and respectfully probes Cunningham’s -a very private person- religious leanings and sexuality.) And as a bonus, it takes one on an enthralling cultural journey through time and the pulsating streets of New York City simultaneously. Throughout the film, Press lets Cunningham’s work and various daily errands –which include grabbing a quick, cheap lunch at Carnegie Deli and working in The Times building to meticulously lay his column out alongside various coworkers– stand at the heart of the story. We understand how he lived (in a tiny Carnegie Hall studio, amid countless file cabinets that contain the negatives of every single photo he ever took), how he thought, what he lifted his camera for and what he ignored. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, one of the film’s many carefully chosen and placed talking heads, says it best with “We all dress for Bill.” She knew first hand the rush of glory one feels if he raised his camera at your sight. “And when he ignores you, it’s death,” she says. The proof of that comes in one particularly memorable scene, when Cunningham casually ignores Catherine Deneuve as she steps out of a limo during the Paris fashion week. “She wasn’t wearing anything interesting,” Cunningham says, dismissing a group of paparazzi startled at his indifference. In another scene, he recalls his days as a milliner (hat-making was his passion from early ages) and says he wasn’t particularly interested in Marilyn Monroe or Ginger Rogers, two of his Clients, as “they had no style” according to him.

As we follow Cunningham bike around the streets of New York, mostly in midtown Manhattan, it becomes clear that his interest didn’t lie in celebrity or who was wearing the clothes. Instead, he consistently captured how the clothes were worn. Never less than a nice, pleasant and eager human being, he looked for the individual stamp as a signal of personal style and through this sensibility, he recorded and even reinforced many fashion staples throughout the decades; from fanny packs and denim dresses to preppy-chic ensembles. He rejected tabloid-type “who wore it better” formats and denounced the concept of “out” in fashion. If the streets decided something was a trend, he was on board with giving it a voice and a boost.

What makes Press’ documentary superb is the way it eventually transmits the joys of Bill Cunningham’s unparalleled encounters and unquenchable enthusiasm for style onto the audience. Through his photographs of everyday people and of the likes of Shail Upadhya (United Nations diplomat from Nepal and a frequent subject of Cunningham), Iris Apfel and Annette de la Renta, Press’ film lovingly conveys the combination of nostalgia, awe and envy Cunningham’s work evokes.

Like that one reliable family member who tirelessly unites relatives and protects/collects family memorabilia in order to preserve a sense of continuity through the generations, Cunningham connected the seemingly disjointed dots scattered all over New York City’s cultural and social sphere for decades. He showed us we were a part of something bigger, stylish, ever-changing and continuous, in which our personal styles mattered and made us who we are. Bill Cunningham New York shines a bright, colorful light on the big picture, shows there is beauty in personal expression and actively attempts to train one’s eye to see it all around.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.