A word of warning to style watchers: this film is not about fashion.
Sure, Richard Press’ acclaimed documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” seems made for Women’s Wear Daily subscribers. It follows veteran New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, 82, the originator of street style shots with his “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns, still powering away at the pedals of his bicycle in search of “interesting clothes” and the New Yorkers that wear them.
But it’s the shots not seen in the Times that surprise--frames of Cunningham in tenement-like quarters. The last man sleeping on a cot in Carnegie Hall, surrounded by every negative he’s developed over his four-decade career. With the stamina of a man half his age, the film follows him downtown while shooting city-dwellers in transit, then bicycling back to the Times like an intrepid tyke on deadline.
“He really just works all the time,” said Press. “He’s up in the morning photographing people at 8:30 until midnight. He lives his life so singularly.” But Cunningham isn’t the average workaholic. Even in slumber, he’s not too far from photography, a vocation the practicing Catholic treats like monasticism.
Which is also why Press purposefully discards the apostrophe “s” in the title: it’s not Cunningham’s New York or one man’s take on Manhattan. “In my mind, it’s almost like an address. They’re two entities,” said Press. “There’s Bill Cunningham and New York, and they’re together.”
They’re symbiotic. Mirrors. Partners adjoined in sacramental union.
The film captures what Cunningham shot for decades: class, cultures, gender, politics. Despite Cunningham’s rosy demeanor, he’s a knowing witness to more than trends.
“He’s very aware of everything politically, socially and culturally going on around him,” said Press. “It might seem that he’s so focused on fashion that he’s not aware of anything else, but he chooses to place himself outside it all.”
A mighty feat for a man Tom Wolfe effectively called New York’s social arbiter. Cunningham rejects that title, never sipping so much as a glass of water at social events while snapping Lady Astor or Annette De La Renta, instead claiming, “I eat with my eyes! No, thank you, child.”
Of New York, he’s neither disdainful nor enamored, but speaks of women like sculptures. “She must be one of the most elegant women in New York,” he says of Mercedes Bass.
“Who is this beautiful child? I think we need someone new, someone young,” says Cunningham of socialite Lauren Santo Domingo, not recognizing Vogue’s “LSD.”
But the new blood highlights the film’s bittersweet undercurrent. Cunningham’s era-the gilded age of print journalism and artist studios-is portrayed in its twilight, giving way to new times and technologies. In a rare complaint about his pages, he gripes, “We gotta leave room for that damn three or four line website!”
But Cunningham’s complaints rarely last. Even in the film’s most somber, final moments, he exudes unabashed joy.
“I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible. To be honest and straight in New York, that’s like Don Quixote fighting windmills.”
Cunningham laughs as the film ends. He’s off to battle another.