Originally appeared in the artsfuse.org 5/8/11
"Bill Cunningham’s New York"
This is the story of a fashion fetishist, his camera, and NYC.
Bill Cunningham is a nimble, birdlike bicyclist — now an octogenarian, still biking and shooting and famed throughout the fashion world for his work. Starting in 1978, his fashion verité photos for The New York Times gave him steady employment, aesthetic freedom, and complete license to shoot.
It should be stressed that Cunningham loves clothes — not the celebrities nor the wealth associated with them. He's primordially blasé about all that. And maybe it's not even clothes per se that he enjoys: it's individualization and inventiveness through couture, presentation of personhood by means of dress. He's just as quick to see and appreciate it on a bag lady as on a billionaire.
I, personally, don't care much about clothes, and was only prevented from turning off to the film by Cunningham’s elemental enthusiasm. It can be tempting to write him off as simple in some way, what with his bright, ready laugh. If so, he's simple in the best way. He's unconflicted and articulate about his fetish and the pleasure it affords him.
Manhattan is the other focus of the film, as Cunningham cycles through it daily, camera ready, hawk-eyed for couture prey. At one point, he consents to being feted in Paris by fashion's grandest dames and messieurs. You see a photo of him in Paris taken when he was stationed there during World War II, lean, handsome, with that enviably blithe smile on his face already.
But New York City is his beat, New York City, as defined, that is, by Manhattan. Brooklyn is apparently a bridge or three too far. Cunningham has no idea what he's missing, on the Coney Island/Brighton Beach boardwalk for example, and in other reaches of those "outer" boroughs. But you forgive him that limitation of his range when he you see him whack into a suddenly stopped yellow taxi on traffic snarled Sixth Avenue. Cunningham's New York tale of woe consists of many a good bike stolen.
At one point, filmmaker Richard Press sits Cunningham down for some weighty questions, advising him, as if of Miranda rights, that he may prefer not to answer.
Cunningham immediately bursts out laughing: You mean am I gay!? Am I? My family didn't like my interest in fashion. But I never thought about it. I was always too busy. Liked the clothes too much, taking the photos.
Are you religious?
Here for the first time he disappears into himself for some reckoning before responding.
I go to church on Sunday. I need it for some reason. My family was Catholic. I used to go.
His mood lifts as he recalls: I used to love looking at the bonnets!
He and one or two other ancestral inhabitants are to be evicted from the studios in which, since the 1940s, they've dwelled and worked in the Carnegie Hall building. Offices will replace them, cubicles, business spaces. Mayor Bloomberg, never one to deny business interests, is petitioned to intervene, and declines.
Cunningham is shown the high priced, Central Park South alternatives that will be provided for him. These are places most Manhattanites would go paraplegic for, with glorious views of Central Park in full bloom. Cunningham will have enough room so that his archives, dating back decades, will no longer threaten, one day, to come loose from the Carnegie walls and bury him.
He is neither morose about leaving the Carnegie cave, nor excited about the new digs, neither nostalgic nor enthused. Trees aren't his thing. He's impatient to shoot.
At the end you see him mount his bike again, eye out for what people are wearing.