Bill Cunningham New York, 2010.
Directed by Richard Press.
A profile of the veteran New York fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.
You may not have heard of the stellar documentary Bill Cunningham New York, but it has deservedly won more audience awards at film festivals than you can poke a stick at.
The film is an account of the life of now, irreplaceable fashion photographer and icon of the New York and Paris fashion scene Bill Cunningham. Bill’s a great eccentric character who spends a majority of his time on his Schwinn bicycle, peddling through the busy New York City streets and pulling up to busy intersections to photograph street fashion. Bill’s weekly column in the New York Times has catalogued the evolution of street fashion since the 70s.
The film is a historical account of the evolution of New York Fashion, the social scene, the artistic community – from possibly one of the most modest, understated and interesting men on the planet. In the face of the wealthiest and style focused citizens in the world and frenetic pace of technological advancement – Bill still uses an old school film loaded Nikon (and he processes his film himself), wears the same modest clothes (which he occasionally repairs himself) and refuses to be monetarily rewarded for his attendance to parties etc. Cunningham lives in a studio above Carnegie Hall, alone, surrounded by a cornucopia of files cataloguing his life’s work and a library of fashion books. He’s staunchly against people interfering with his creative vision and at times in his life he’s contributed to fashion publications without being paid so that he could have total creative control. Bill has a certain kind of unique integrity that is exceptionally rare and the plethora of interviews with fashion icons throughout the film can attest to not only his influence but his uniquity. There is a particularly beautiful moment as Bill is shuffling to get past a checkpoint at a Paris fashion show when one of the organisers barges past the people holding him up and says – “This is the most important man in the world.”
You can’t help but feel that despite his renown, that there is a deep sadness and loneliness inside of Bill that informs his continuing pursuits. It leaves you with a strange feeling while you’re viewing when you’re pulled between the emotional poles of joy and intangible loss.
Press’ documentary style is unobtrusive – happily being a fly on the wall to Bill’s exploits and really warmly admires the subject. However, there is one moment that Press’ presence is felt as he asks Bill about his sexuality and religious beliefs (which until this point in the film hasn’t been mentioned – but its absence is cultivating a curiosity in the audience) and it is one of the great moments in in documentary cinema this year. Press asks the question with such warmth and trust and doesn’t push the subject and Bill’s reaction rippled through the audience that I saw it with.
Normally I’d say something like “see it if you’re a fan of fashion or even eccentricity in great artists” but this film has something for everyone. It’s a fascinating insight into fashion, New York’s artistic community, the evolution of fashion, fashion photography and the sublime beauty of finding your passion and letting that drive you to excel. So see it if you like great stories and fascinating people.
Blake Howard is a writer/site director/podcaster at the castleco-op.com.