I’m not entirely sure what drew me to watching this film as I’m not a big fan of fashion. I suppose I’m interested in photography and also in people. On with the watch.
Bill Cunningham New York follows Bill Cunningham (shit the bed, didn’t see that one coming), the famous and original street style fashion photographer who photographs for the Times as well as previously working for Details without remuneration and Womenswear Daily, which made him decide to no longer be remunerated for his work.
On the outset he’s just a bit of a kook. He himself is pretty unfashionable, wearing a blue smock and a black poncho that he’s taped together; he cycles everywhere; he has bad teeth; his bed is a filing cabinet, and so on. However, he has a lot of heart and a lot of talent and passion, and this is what makes him such a captivating subject. He has chronicled New York street style throughout the latter half of the 20th century through to the present day, and is arguably the foremost documentarian of street style fashion, or fashion in general, in this period (hey-oh! history reference).
He claims he’s not really a photographer. He photographs all the time but I suppose he’s right: he isn’t a ‘traditional’ photographer. Photography itself is not what interests him; it’s the fashion featured in his photographs that he wants to share. And he has done a lot for the fashion world, I learned: Cunningham was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture during Paris Fashion week. A large number of fashionistas and New York society give testimony to what a treasure Bill is, and he really does seem like a truly likable guy.
It seems that his personal life is somewhat waning, or that his working life very much is his personal life. He claims to have never had any relationships ever. His family probably thought he was gay (it is never clarified whether he is or isn’t). He doesn’t like food. He’s happy living in a cramped apartment in Carnegie Hall – which he is later forced out of, along with several other artists and personalities. And he goes to church every Sunday. Aside from this, we know that he was in the army and used to work as a milliner.
The filmmakers, Richard Press and Philip Gefter (a former picture editor at the Times), clearly care about and respect Bill Cunningham to make such a beautiful and captivating film. As several of the talking heads say, Bill never takes a picture with bad intentions; he just takes it to celebrate fashion and to celebrate people. I hate the word ‘inspirational’, but it is pretty inspirational to see someone so dedicated to their craft and so kindhearted. The world needs more Bill Cunnighams.