Bill Cunningham New York: “He who seeks beauty will find it”

Still from Bill Cunningham New York film


If I remember correctly, I first became aware of style writer and photographer Bill Cunningham through Scott Schuman’s hugely famous street style blog, The Sartorialist.  Schuman had shot Cunningham, who was in turn shooting his own subject, in the pouring rain; the later protecting his camera under a cheap looking waterproof poncho. Looking back at the post now, there is very little text, so perhaps I read somewhere else Schuman lauding Cunningham as a hero of his, and as the grandfather of street style; although I’m not sure he used those words.

“I always thought the best catwalk is on the street,” the film’s subject intones, in his characteristic New York drawl.  A pretty standard thing for a street style photographer to say, one might imagine; but I think that, listening to the way he describes the women (and men) he photographs throughout the film and the passion he has for them and their clothes, this statement takes on a greater meaning.  It is the life and the humour that Cunningham is so spectacularly able to capture in his photographs of people going about their lives – who happen to look fabulous, or exciting and intriguing – which sets his images apart from the minutely contrived ‘looks’ of the catwalk and advertising shots.

Cunningham’s warmth and affection towards his subjects is clear throughout the documentary, from the middle-aged society women he protectively calls ‘child’ and the similarly middle-aged art and club icons, like Eva and Adele, who he jovially refers to as ‘kids’, right to the actual teenagers he photographs who aggressively tell him that if he takes any more pictures of them, they’ll smash his camera over his head.  Cunningham is a man who seems to come from another age, a halcyon period of ethics, manners and kindness which never really existed, but whose myth is maintained due to the existence of people like him.

This othertimeliness is magnified by Cunningham’s residence at Carnegie Hall, a shrinking existence he shares with more avant garde characters than himself, such as fellow photographer Editta Sherman.  Compared to Sherman’s expansive apartment, Cunningham has a locker-room of a flat; hemmed in from all angles by filing cabinets of negatives of all the photographs he’s ever taken, his bed is nothing more than a camp bed and magazines pile up on every available surface, so that he (and the viewer) worries that one day he might be caught in an avalanche of his own back catalogue.

Cunningham is a odd creature, that is for sure. A rare breed, one might prefer to say, considering the affection one so instinctively feels for the man.  He shoots real film and develops it at a local photography shop; he rides everywhere on his bicycle (rain or shine); he wears his instantly recognisable $20 blue smock, as the constant rub of his camera against his chest would ruin a nicer jacket; he mends his (aformentioned) battered rain poncho with duct tape, as if he buys a new one it’ll only break in the same places.  These little quirks inhabit the more bizarre end of his moral compass which sees him reject backdated payment for his work on Details magazine, so as not to let the new buyers ‘own him’, and also stops him from accepting any food or drink at the fancy soirées he attends, in order to stay objective.

His status as an outside observer even holds true at party held in his honour, where instead of mingling and bathing in the spotlight, he moves, as ever, around the crowd, taking pictures of the well heeled attendees.  In this age of celebrity, where, if you are a ‘somebody,’ then we are all likely to know the finer details of your love life, diet and history, Bill Cunningham seems something of an enigma. He is perhaps someone who has given his life to his work and so his private life is less a secret, more a non-entity.  Late in the film, he muses, “I guess you can’t be in love with your work,” but really it seems that the world he has created through his lens, with all of its colourful characters, really is his one true passion. It seems our very good fortune that he has been able to share this spectacular vision with us, and that he agreed for once in his life to be the ‘subject,’ rather than the one capturing it.  A must-see documentary for anyone who wishes to uncover (if only slightly) a true creative, an innovator and a figure of fashion history.


Bill Cunningham New York opens at The Cornerhouse, Manchester, on Monday 19th March 2012

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