Richard Press’s documentary is an affectionate portrait of the photographer whose snapshots of designer fashion, high society events and peculiarly-dressed people on the street have graced the pages of the New York Times for years. Bill Cunningham’s importance to the world of haute couture situates Press’s picture within the run of recent documentaries on that subject.
What makes the film more than just that is the contradictory nature of Cunningham himself. The octogenarian shutterbug is fanatic about dress that’s unusual or innovative, but his own wardrobe is as plain as can be. He’s at home in the most rarefied social circles, but spends his days on the city streets, camera in hand, scampering to shoot passersby whose clothes pique his interest. He’s ruthless in revealing what amounts to designer plagiarism, but is concerned that the people he photographs be treated with respect. He admits to never having had a serious romantic relationship but has a bevy of friends and, in a speech before a business crowd in Paris, waxes eloquently about his love of—and devotion to—the ideal of fashion. Though he travels among celebrities, he has contempt for mere celebrity, and while they’re in their chauffeured limousines he travels around on his twenty-eighth bike (the previous twenty-seven, he reveals, have been stolen). And he lives a positively spartan existence, subsisting on the simplest of foods and living in a tiny rent-controlled Carnegie Hall office without kitchen or private bath, almost bereft of furniture aside from the mass of file cabinets where he stores the negatives of all the pictures he’s ever shot—until he’s evicted and moved by the city into a larger place. That’s partially explained by his indifference to money; he’s frequently turned down payments in order to maintain his prized independence.
Press’s approach is laid-back, easygoing almost to a fault; but it benefits from the grace notes contained in the interviews with the voluble photographer, his work colleagues and his myriad friends and associates. One of the most endearing episodes, for instance, comes when Press and Cunningham spend some time with his Carnegie Hall neighbor Editta Sherman, in her nineties even older than he, who somewhat acidly shows off her collection of the notables she’s photographed over the years.
“Bill Cunningham New York” isn’t directly revelatory about the man—when Cunningham speaks about his private life, his reticence speaks more loudly than his words. But it holds your attention over its rather untidily assembled eighty-minutes of on-the-fly footage by reason of what it reveals about his almost monastic devotion to his work. Ultimately it’s a film about single-mindedness—of a cheerful, contented sort, to be sure, but still a little frightening. Beneath its genial surface—and the man’s—one might just glimpse a bit of something rather more poignant.