Bill Cunningham New York

Tshepo Mokoena

One man in a worker’s jacket, relentlessly documenting New Yorkers from all walks of life. We review Richard Press’ documentary on the NY Times photographer.

Photographer Bill Cunningham is a largely unassuming and elderly man of a miniscule, bird-like build: it’s a wonder of human anatomy that his booming chuckle and huge personality manage to occupy such a small space. This now-legendary New York Times street style and events snapper roams the city’s streets of with an eye out for style, camera permanently strapped around his neck, and an unflinching attention to the most minute of details.

Here, director Richard Press does a beautiful job of portraying New York City through Cunningham’s eyes, giving us an insight into his glimpses of high society and attempting to unveil the well-hidden dimensions of the photographer’s personal life.

The film opens in Cunningham’s tiny Manhattan flat corridor, before following him out onto the street and beginning its fly-on-the-wall journey. Shot without a crew and largely on handheld consumer cameras, the documentary maintains a close hold on its target yet never seems suffocating in the process. Cunningham shows himself to be the type of man who’d rather keep himself to himself, go about his business and shoot the people who inspire him – that he agreed to the film alone is an indication of what a special project it is.

We see him hop off his bike, mid-sentence in conversation with the team member behind the lens, to shoot passersby as he cycles to the New York Times offices on numerous occasions. Watching him in action on the city’s streets there’s a sense of how fashion isn’t a high brow art to him: it’s about the real people putting their personalities into their outfits, without subscribing to ‘get her look!’ editorial in glossy magazines. It’s about the spirit of New York, as spread through the oft-overlooked details that Cunningham picks up on and highlights as micro trends.

L: Cunningham with Carnegie Hall neighbour & fellow photographer Editta Sherman in the 1970s; R: With US Vogue editor-at-large, Andre Leon Talley in 1984

In the days before every aspiring fashion photographer had a DSLR and street style blog, Cunningham established himself as a man with a keen, observant and hugely unbiased eye. Press tracks his progression from hat-maker to photographer for Details Magazine, correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily (with whom he had a rather dramatic falling out) to his current position as Times photographer.

The real sense of his ability to transcend social boundaries shows itself when we see him cycle from his tiny flat in Carnegie Hall Studios to high society charity events with gilded guestlists and the sorts of women for whom the term ‘socialite’ was coined before it turned into a party-heiress synonym.

In his work with the Times, Cunningham’s earned the trust and admiration of the normally secretive and fairly cagey ‘old money’ types, many of whom sat and talked to a camera crew for the first time in their lives for this documentary. Whether American Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour recounting her experiences ‘dressing for Bill, as everyone did’ or philanthropist Brooke Astor inviting him to her exclusive birthday party in 2008, he manages to slip into a myriad of social circles when armed with his lens.

Lovingly bamboozled on his birthday, by mask-wearing clones from the Times staff

Only when given a closer look into his past and personal history does his otherwise perfectly content façade briefly slip. His upbringing is shrouded in mystery, his sexuality a non-topic that he only once addresses and the logic of how he survives while refusing money for his photographs totally baffling. He only waves away the topic in passing with “money’s the cheapest thing, liberty’s the most expensive” before getting back to the task of meticulously sorting his bedroom full of old photos.

This film is simply the portrait of one man, but sits in a wider remit of showcasing the city he’s come to call his home, the personalities within it, and his inspiring approach to life. Though it won’t please everyone, it’s straightforward documentation. Its blunt honesty is a refreshing take on one character in the fashion world who’s managed to set himself apart from the usual oh dahling airs and graces that plague the industry, while earning the respect of the top players in the game. And for that, I salute him.

‘Bill Cunningham New York’ had its German premiere at this year’s Berlinale, see the official website here.
Originally published on Don’t Panic UK