If you do nothing else this week, go see the new Bill Cunningham documentary directed by Richard Press. It will make you fall in love with NYC, with fashion, with life, and most of all with Bill Cunningham, a sweet brilliant humble man who, at age 82, rides around NYC on his bicycle taking photos of interestingly dressed people for The New York Times. (He’s on his 29th bike; 28 have been stolen!) The obvious joy he gets from his work is truly inspiring; when he smiles, he lights up the screen.
While he covers endless runway shows and society events, Cunningham confides that his passion is the street shots. “I love to photograph ordinary people dressed in fascinating ways,” he explains.
Cunningham worked for the original Details, for WWD and then the Times, only going full-time in order to get health insurance (after 10 bicycle accidents!) And after putting in his very full work weeks, Cunningham then works on weekends, spending most Saturdays in SoHo and Sundays (after church) in Central Park. He never dines or drinks at any of the fancy events he covers, preferring instead a simple sandwich at a coffee shop. “If you don’t accept anything from anyone, they don’t own you…” he wisely maintains. For many years, Cunningham shot only in black and white, as he couldn’t afford color film! He still shoots with film rather than digitally; his modest rent-controlled Carnegie Hall apartment was filled with file cabinets crammed with photographs until he was evicted (but relocated) by the city of New York. According to film director Richard Press, Cunningham is the only photographer around who actually owns his own work.
Press claims the movie took 10 years to make: eight to convince Cunningham to do it; then two years to actually film it. According to Press, Cunningham has not yet seen the movie and has no interest in doing so. Although he went to one of the screenings in order to photograph the celebrities who attended, he ran the photos in the paper without even mentioning that the movie being screened happened to be about him!
My favorite Cunningham quote from the film: “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. To do away with fashion would be like doing away with civilization.”