There are people who never find what it is they are meant to be doing in life. Then there’s others who resign themselves to do whatever it is they think they should be doing until they retire or shuffle off the mortal coil. Then there’s that special breed of person who is so passionate about what they do, it ceases to become a job and instead becomes their whole life. Bill Cunningham is one of those rare and unique human beings. Vogue editor Anna Wintour perhaps says it best: “We all get dressed for Bill”.
Well into his 80s, Bill is a bicycle-riding photographer who has been taking photos of the fashion of New York for almost half a century. Best known recently for his New York Times Style section and his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours”, Bill doesn’t simply shoot the latest fashions, but all of the people passing by in the street, gauging the trends and finding ones that catch his eye. Indeed, many of his photos are never published. Leading fashion designer Oscar de la Renta has said “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.”
Bill Cunningham New York is a fascinating example of turning the gaze back on the observer. As a fashion photographer and observer of human nature, Cunningham has made a number of people famous, including the colourful New York personalities we see in the film. He is said to have introduced designers Azzedine Alaïa and Jean-Paul Gaultier to US audiences, and is spoken of in the highest terms by New York identities Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller. Yet the real power of the film comes from the same source that gives Cunningham’s own photos their strength: a casual, non-judgmental and observational gaze of its subject that reveals more than volumes of work on Cunningham ever could.
Cunningham in a singular being, who doesn’t go to movies, eat out or any external entertainment. His cramped apartment filled with five decades of footage he has shot on the streets of New York are indicative of a man who can’t stop working. The film comes closest to cracking the Cunningham enigma when he is asked about regrets in his life, or any relationships he may have had outside of his work. For a moment it seems that Cunningham will break down and cry, but it is fleeting. The barriers go back up, and the subject once again becomes the observer.
Director Richard Press has noted in several places that Cunningham himself found the idea of being the subject of a documentary ridiculous, and this is perhaps because he has made a career of being as invisible as possible, and as much a part of the New York scene as the hot dog stands or the Statue of Liberty. These are things observed every day, but without them the character of New York would not be the same.
Bill Cunningham New York was first screened in Australia back at the Sydney Film Festival 2010. It is released in Australia for wider release on 3 November 2011 by Madman Films.