Photographer Bill Cunningham (born 1929) loves clothes. He initially started as a hat maker, a trade he happily plied until he was drafted. Back in his civvies, he worked as a fashion photographer until he grew unhappy with the demands upon his vision and editorial policies that he saw as unkind to average people who wore designer clothes. Without regret, he left for different (if not greener) pastures.
Instead, he started taking pictures of New Yorkers as they were on the street – a fascinating record of how Gothamites have dressed and looked since 1978. His New York Times column, On The Street, is a weekly collection of the trends or looks he noted each week, for which he also does the layout and a brief commentary.
Filmmaker Richard Press created a documentary about this illusive figure in 2011, Bill Cunningham New York. The film tracked Cunningham breezing through Manhattan on bicycle and living in his tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building – an apartment with no closet, kitchen or private bathroom. The apartment was furnished only with filing cabinets (holding hundreds of thousands of his photographs), a mattress propped up on some books and boxes, and many books. Cunningham lived there happily until the Carnegie Hall Corporation evicted him in 2010 – an artist, a living New York institution, and a man well into his 80s. Think of that the next time you want to spend your hard-earned ticket money.
Cunningham, who never married, lives a life of Spartan simplicity. His home is, for the most part, on the streets of New York. Cunningham is not interested in celebrities, models or people paid to wear the latest fashions. His art is akin to stealth warfare – he sneaks onto the teeming streets of New York, gets his shots, and retreats to the Times to do his column. His has very little life other than this.
Though Press’ film does an admirable job of shedding light on Cunningham and his life, the artist’s natural reticence renders him a somewhat opaque figure – even his closest friends know little of his private life. In the few instances in the film where Cunningham is asked direct questions, his answers are more evasive than luminous. In the final analysis, Cunningham comes across as a sad, rather stunted man. His palpable sense of joy at both photography and clothes is a delight – but other than that sense of freedom and joy, there seems to be little else to him.
Disquieting too is the New York depicted in the documentary. We are given snippets of commentary from people as diverse as Tom Wolfe (born 1931), Anna Wintour (born 1949), Patrick McDonald (who strikes us as rather ridiculous), Kenny Kenny (who seems to be some kind of drag performer), and Harold Koda (1950) – and Your Correspondent’s takeaway is that New York is rather a squalid, provincial, intellectually challenged little burgh. The City of this documentary seems insular, incurious, uninteresting and rather dirty.
Now, despite its fecundity, New York is a blank canvas – people mostly see what they bring to it, and not how it really is. I think the problem for me is that this is not my New York and, frankly, the idea of being stuck in this version fills me with something akin to dread.
Still, for people who have a taste for big city street vibes, New York eccentrics, the world of fashion or even the triumph of free spirits, then Bill Cunningham New York is a safe viewing bet. It’s available at Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble nationwide.