Producers: Mark Bozek and Russell Nuce Director: Mark Bozek Screenplay: Mark Bozek Cast: Bill Cunningham and Sarah Jessica Parker Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment
There has already been one documentary about legendary New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham (Richard Press’s well-received 2011 “Bill Cunningham New York”), but Mark Bozek’s film is a useful addition since it takes a more autobiographical approach. It’s based on an extended interview that the normally reserved shutterbug (who, it’s revealed here, didn’t even attend the screening of Press’s film, instead standing outside on the street as it unspooled) gave to the writer-director back in 1994. The discussion, the ebullient Cunningham says, was intended to be ten minutes or so, but it stretched on for hours, and the excerpts from it, complemented by connective narration delivered by Sarah Jessica Parker and a slew of archival material (much from Cunningham’s own photo collection), provides an engaging self-portrait of the man.
Bozek’s approach has another element. Though his film mentions celebrities that Cunningham knew and interacted with, including Jackie Kennedy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for example), it eschews interviews about its subject from colleagues and admirers.
Cunningham probably would have appreciated that, since as the anecdote about Press’s film indicates, he was certainly no prima donna. Though his “Evening Hour” spreads the famous during their nights out and his “On the Streets” pages of snapshots made on-the-fly as he rode around the city on his bike (including the 1978 one of Greta Garbo that was widely circulated—which, he said, was taken because of the coat the woman, whom he didn’t recognize, was wearing) became famous (as also did his shoots at fashion shows, such as the one at Versailles in 1973 he enthuses over), he dismisses notions that he was an accomplished photographic artist.
He repeatedly insists, instead, that he sees himself as a “fashion historian” who merely documents what he comes upon and instinctively finds interesting as a reflection of the time, as a simple journalist. And he gives abundant praise to others in the field of fashion photography that he does consider real artists—unlike himself.
Bozek’s film provides a solid chronological framework, as Cunningham talks about his childhood, his education, the disappointment of his family when he chose to follow his interest in hats rather than complete a Harvard degree (and their general distress over his professional choices), his early jobs and his tenure at the Times. It introduces us to his amusingly frugal lifestyle in a Carnegie Hall apartment, a small place filled with file cabinets rather than comfortable furniture. (The film also points out that he shopped at thrift stores, and that when he travelled, he followed the same low-cost pattern.) And it has fun with tales of his penchant for bicycles (nearly thirty of them stolen over the years) and the blue smock that became his customary uniform.
Through Cunningham is a smiling, enthusiastic interlocutor, though he does tear up at a few points—in talking about the AIDS epidemic, for example, which carried off so many of the talented people that he photographed during shoots at gay pride events. Bozek adds material about the photographer’s quiet philanthropy—his donations to gay causes, to friends ill with HIV, and to the Catholic Church in which he was raised in Boston. Once again, however, he did not publicize his work in these areas.
The film is enriched by the work of editor Amina Megalli, who has done yeoman service to bring energy and verve to the material that adds to the interview excerpts, often employing quick cuts and split screens, and by the score of composer Ezinma.
What Bozek’s film establishes quite decisively is not only that Bill Cunningham was a nice man, but that however he might describe it, his talent certainly had an artistic component.