Last week Coco and I attended a preview screening of Bill Cunningham New York. When my pal was in the third grade, she was assigned to write a Thanksgiving essay about what she was most thankful for. Unlike her classmates that were thankful for their parents, grandparents and pets, Coco tossed her thanks to Macy’s because they carried Jordache jeans. Fast forward twenty-odd years later to the present where this grown-up fashionista is so excited about attending this screening, she’s sprouted a rather eye-catching full beard resembling a maroon dyed raccoon.
Bill Cunningham is a New York Times treasure, an intrepid man on the street photographer whose On the Street columns (and in recent years, videos) chronicling fashion trends and the New York social scene are reliable highlights of the Sunday Style section. This is a film made with love, wit and deep respect for this reluctant star. Directed by Richard Press and produced by his partner in work and marriage, Philip Gefter, this dynamic duo gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the life of an extremely gracious, painfully modest, very active and eternally optimistic artist as he approaches age eighty during the course of filming (Bill’s now 82).
A very private man by nature, even Bill’s closest friends and colleagues admit they know next to nothing about his personal life. Some facts about Bill are obvious, such as his distinct patrician accent every time he utters his favorite word, “Maahvalous,” betraying that he was born and bred in Boston. An unanswered question is raised asking if Bill is the product of wealth. During the q&a Press said that Bill revealed to him that his father worked for the US Postal Service, but did not elaborate further so he had no way of knowing if pere Cunningham was a common letter carrier or the postmaster general.
Bill does possess a very strong philosophy about money that borders on contemptuous. He refused to accept any payment for his photos published in Details magazine where he worked during two of the happiest years of his life. He was allowed complete control and was in his bliss. He reasons, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.” Fiercely independent, Bill shoots all of his photographs on film and he owns all of his negatives. He is the last photographer on the Times staff that shoots film adamantly refusing to go digital. The Times allows him what appears to be complete autonomy, as well as a bevy of assistants he drives crazy.
During the year Press and Gefter followed Bill, he was faced with having to vacate his bohemian utopia, a rent-controlled studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, where he has resided since the early fifties. Bill’s room is a simple sliver of space (with no kitchen and a shared bath in the hallway) that’s cluttered with metal file cabinets packed with his thousands of negatives. He sleeps on a narrow cot atop piles of magazines. His clothes hang on wire hangers on the cabinets’ drawer pulls. His longtime neighbors include his colorful friend, 96-year-old portrait photographer Editta Sherman. Hopefully, someone will soon film a documentary about her.
This apartment has clearly been the key to Bill’s unique degree of independence. Very low overhead and paying next-to-nothing rent would be a godsend to all struggling artists and hack bloggers today if this dream option still existed in New York, but it doesn’t. Therefore, if you’re not born into wealth, you fail to wed a rich spouse, and you’re not on the winning side of a pot of lottery ticket gold, try to find a day job that is not entirely soul-sucking, and when need be, a source of material.
Bill’s never had a life partner but in a very moving scene, he answers some blunt questions about his disciplined personal life. He doesn’t own a TV, and claims he does not have the time to see films or go to the theater, but admits he does enjoy music. He gets his fix when he attends church on Sunday. He has no interest in fine dining and subsists on cheap deli sandwiches and take-out coffee.
As monastic as his private life is, Bill is possibly the hardest working, most inspired member of the Times staff as he navigates Manhattan on his thirtieth three speed bike. The previous twenty-nine were all stolen, but he has an almost zen-like acceptance about that. He is not a guy that sweats the small stuff. The street is where he wants to be as he hunts for subjects.
Almost everywhere he goes, he’s welcomed warmly, but there is a hilarious moment when two identically dressed teens he photographs turn on him, curse him out and threaten to break his camera. Instead of fleeing in fear from these angry kids more than sixty years his junior, he is entertained, giggling impishly as he pedals away.
A man who thrives on beauty, Bill has an expert eye for detecting trends. From one of his favorite perches, the four corners of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, often outside Bergdorf Goodman, he waits with his camera poised for prey — anyone stylishly dressed. The clothes he photographs need not be expensive. What’s required for a snap from Bill is that a subject looks original. He takes his photographs with an unabashed enthusiasm lithely chasing objects of his admiration as they cross the street, scampering for a better angle, and occasionally directing a subject. He is a guy who is most in the zone when he is clutching his Nikon. He even snaps shots while pedaling from one location to the next.
His work ethic is so dedicated that it borders on obsessive. Bill’s typical day usually starts around 8:30 am and ends at midnight. He is also a walking encyclopedia of fashion trends past. Since he is disinterested in pop culture, and his main focus is clothes, he is equally indifferent to celebrity. In Paris, during fashion week, photographers swarm fashion icon Catherine Deneuve as she enters her limousine. Bill stands back with his Nikon at rest. Later, he matter-of-factly explains that she wasn’t wearing anything interesting. As he waits to enter another fashion show amongst a horde of press, a minion questions Bill who waits patiently wearing a bemused expression. When her boss appears, he brushes past the youngster, and gives Bill instant access declaring, “He’s the most important man on earth.”
While in Paris, Bill receives a prestigious award, a chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. He seems to much prefer photographing the guests, but he does deliver an acceptance speech mostly in heavily American-accented French that he emotionally concludes in English, “If you look you can find beauty in everything.”
As Coco and I left the screening we marveled at Bill’s devotion to his craft and the overall purity of his spirit. I vowed:
Me: I’m going to further downsize my life! I’ll completely commit myself to the written word! I’ll be the Bill Cunningham of blogging!
Then, we hit a bar where I proceeded to drink my weight in sake. I screwed off for the remainder of the week and did not publish another post until the following Friday.
Coco, had a more sober reaction:
Coco: I’m going to hang out at 57th and Fifth every chance I get.
Bill Cunningham New York opens today for a two week run at the Film Forum in lower Manhattan, and will roll out in major cities nationally.