By RACHEL THIBAULT
Department of Communication
Who is Bill Cunningham? To start, he’s an enigmatic octogenarian and fixture of the streets of New York. He’s obsessed with the wild styles and bold colors of New Yorkers, yet wears a simple blue smock and a pair of khakis while photographing fashion’s flashiest. He rides a Schwinn around town (his 29th; the first 28 were stolen), sleeps on a cot in a cramped tiny Carnegie Hall studio, and patches up his plastic raincoats with black duct tape. He doesn’t speak of favorite designers and refuses the pate and shrimp cocktail offered to him at the galas he photographs.
As Cunningham explains, he doesn’t want or need such sustenance.
“I eat with my eyes,” he says.
This metaphor aptly describes this visually ravenous man, who’s been photographing fashion on the streets for close to fifty years, primarily for the New York Times (for his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns). His friends call him a “war photographer,” evidenced by his penchant for running after great style into traffic. And while a cast of famous and not-so-famous characters often crosses his path, it’s Cunningham and his infectious laugh and all-consuming passion that shine the brightest.
Cunningham’s unique personality is captured in the 2010 documentary feature film “Bill Cunningham New York,” screening on Feb. 2 at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge.
Director Richard Press confesses that it took him ten years to make the film—eight of which were dedicated to convincing Cunningham to be filmed, and the remaining two to shoot and edit the film. It’s no surprise that Press’s visual style is frenetic and spontaneous, since Cunningham’s approach to finding fashion on the street is just the same. Press had no crew and used only small, handheld consumer cameras so Cunningham wouldn’t feel crowded and uncomfortable.
Bill Cunningham is an equal-opportunity photographer, and he believes everyone has access to a unique style. He photographs women in sky-high heels and in colorful, billowing rainjackets with equal interest and without evaluation.
“You can’t report unless you’ve seen it all,” he quips.
And it’s about the reality of how people dress. He doesn’t follow trends exclusively but might notice one appear before his eyes, and sees fashion standouts among both ordinary citizens as well as those with serious fashion agendas. The “New York Dandy” Patrick McDonald, a hardcore trendsetter who doesn’t leave the house without his mole and signature eyebrows (and who was once featured in several photos by Cunningham) says that Cunningham recognizes that “we are all canvasses.”
While the film shows Cunningham’s fascination with how people express themselves through clothes—like former UN diplomat Shail Upadhya from Nepal, who stands stoically with his collection of unusual suits, including one “with fabric from my sofa and ottoman” – Press remains focused on the mysterious lack of information on the reticent Cunningham. Assumptions are made that he must have come from wealth, yet he insists his upbringing was working class. Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and worked as a milliner before becoming a journalist and photographer.
Ethics are important to him; he never took any money for his photography work at independent journal Details, and left his position at Women’s Wear Daily after they changed the copy to mock the women in the photographs he so relished and celebrated for their personal interpretations of runway fashions. He refuses even a glass of water at the benefit dinners and other soirees he covers. “I don’t want to compromise the New York Times,” he insists.
Press’s push for a bigger reveal at the end of the film changes the mood from what has been a mostly light-hearted portrait, when he asks questions about the photographer’s sexuality and spirituality. Cunningham is definitely uncomfortable as he admits to having no interest or participation in romantic relationships over the years, but is emotionally affected by the question regarding his church-going habits. It’s in this moment that we wish the director had given him just a bit more space. You feel you want to leave the room.
Yet this sobering scene also reveals that every activity in Cunningham’s life has meaning– he’s not out to please anyone, only to be true to himself. While he might claim that he’s not a “real” photographer, his sincerity and genuine passion are clearly what his coworkers respond to when they throw him a birthday party complete with cake, and Bill-inspired blue smocks and masks, and a song written in his honor. “It’s hard to play a straight game in this city,” Cunningham says, yet Bill Cunningham New York shows us that it’s possible, refreshing, and delightful.