Stalking the bird of paradise
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, March 25, 2011
Isn’t it wonderful when good things happen to good people? Renowned New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham would probably call it marvelous, but he’d pronounce it “mahvelous” like a good Bostonian and then unleash a little laugh. He’s a charmer, that Bill, and if the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” is any indication, his prominence as a photographer is matched by many other splendid traits, not the least of which is his infectious happiness.
The 80-something New Yorker is a vision in royal blue as he pedals through the streets of Manhattan on a red bicycle, avoiding honking cabs and police sirens. He may be known for his fashion photography, especially the candid shots he takes for his weekly “On the Street” column, but he prefers a blue drugstore jacket — the kind that street sweepers used to wear — unless it’s raining, in which case he opts for an old poncho held together by tape. He adores his $3 egg-sandwich-and-coffee combination at the little deli down the street. And his studio at Carnegie Hall, which he inhabited until he was recently forced to relocate, was really just a tiny room filled with file cabinets and a bed. There was no kitchen, and the bathroom was down the hall. He prefers it that way, living simply.
Yet when it comes to capturing extravagant beauty, Cunningham’s eye is unparalleled. Just ask Vogue editor Anna Wintour, socialite Annette de la Renta or designer Michael Kors.
“We all get dressed for Bill,” Wintour proclaims during an interview early in the film.
Beyond showing the dichotomy between Cunningham’s almost ascetic lifestyle and the flamboyant fashion world, Richard Press’s film excels at stepping back and demonstrating Cunningham’s place within the larger picture. The photographer is a historian of sorts, chronicling all the buzz and energy that makes New York thrilling. He doesn’t just capture the big names — he insists, with his characteristic humility, that he would be a lousy paparazzo — he also pinpoints trends across the spectrum; his columns have focused on baggy pants and chains, fanny packs and men in skirts.
Remarkably, Cunningham has managed to succeed in the fashion world without a trace of snark. He doesn’t believe in “out” lists or spotlighting a fashion faux pas. Rather, he seeks out what he calls the bird of paradise, also known as the elegantly dressed woman. To find her, Cunningham stalks the streets during the day, hits all the major fashion shows and goes to all the parties at night. In short, he never stops working. He also never stops smiling. Even when one girl tells him, in no uncertain terms, that she will break his camera if he photographs her, he merely turns around with that signature grin and bicycles away.
Can anyone really be so happy all the time? Questions emerge about Cunningham’s sexuality and religion, as well as a nagging mystery: Can a man who works so hard have time for a relationship? The documentary delves into the photographer’s private life with all the tact and care Cunningham has shown his own subjects.
As it turns out, the photographer’s true love has always been fashion, although he’ll try to tell you he hasn’t done the best job of capturing it. Bill is like that, a humble sort, but don’t believe him. There’s a lovable genius hiding behind that camera.
Contains brief strong language.