As photographers Bill Cunningham and I could not be any more opposite each other. Where he takes pictures of people in New York City from the streets to high fashion shows in order to capture trends and patterns in the world of clothing I focus on nature and the way the world works with itself. Where Cunningham is widely respected and works for the Gray Lady
I wallow in obscurity
and have never sold a photograph. Cunningham seemingly has no care for composition, his NYT spreads often seem like a cluttered mishmash of people with little to no context outside of a couple of words and the detail that he is focusing on in any given collection. I would dare to say that most of Cunningham’s collections would not be found on the walls of anybody’s homes. They work quite well in the context of his weekly spreads highlighting certain trends on the streets of NYC or the fashion of charitable galas or the wearability of fashion show clothes but few of them are “great” photos of their own accord. Bill’s photos might not be “art” but he is certainly an artist.
It’s telling that there is a documentary about Bill Cunningham. What he does is, as one of the talking heads points out, practically war journalism. Instead of taking pictures of the ravages of war Bill focuses his camera on the ordinary (low hanging jeans and knee length skirts) and the extraordinary (strange high heels and even stranger patterns) in the urban jungle. He just looks at things, all things, and finds what people are wearing in any given week. It’s a talent and a skill and an essential part of his voice as an artist. Everybody in the fashion scene, from designers to magazine moguls, knows and loves Bill because he notices what’s working almost instantly. In a telling segment of the film he sits on the side of a fashion runway in Paris and we see him begin to lift his camera only to put it down again when he recognizes that nobody would possibly wear a piece on a real street. If real people aren’t wearing the clothes he’s not interested. It is this singular focus that makes Bill a true artist. It matters little if the photos are singularly meritorious, it’s what he does with his entire oeuvre that’s the key.
Now that we’ve established why Bill works as a documentary subject and an artist let’s talk about the film itself. It mimics, in its way, Bill’s own approach. We see all the kinds of things that Bill does from walking/riding through the streets of NYC to attending galas (his method of choosing which of the myriad galas to shoot comes down to which charity he deems best) to deciding which pictures to use and pestering his art director/assistant as they work on the layout of the spreads. Each aspect shows us a bit more about Bill and confirming what we’ve learned before. At the beginning we see a nice older man who grew up in the 60s and 70s New York art scene and has found himself as a kind of establishment still. Then we learn about his steadfast policy of not taking payment or even free food while he’s working in order to keep absolutely unencumbered. We then find that he is one of the last few remaining tenants of the Carnegie Hall studios which at one time housed people like Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein and now gives roof to a few old eccentrics (Editta Sherman has been living there for 58 years and is one of the more interesting interview subjects in the film) who are reluctant to leave. Each new segment shows a bit more of Bill and the life he has built, but all is not happiness and sunshine.
In bits and pieces we see that Cunningham is, perhaps, not exactly happy with his religion and at the end of the film the director asks him two questions point blank: how have sex and religion shaped your life? Bill answers the first part deftly, asking whether the real question is if he is gay or straight and manages to not really give an answer until he is asked the second part. There he pauses and looks down at his lap. There is real humanity in this moment and I give great credit to Richard Press (the director) for asking the question and letting it play out in a medium shot. A lesser director might cut to a close up or a different angle but Press keeps the entire interview in an off centered medium shot that allows Cunningham the space to be himself. The little coda after this moment in the film just returns to Bill’s exploration of the streets. We see him from a distance and as he observes the world we observe him, knowing more and yet still not everything about the man. What was just a guy taking pictures at the beginning of the film has transformed into an artist creating and defining the world through his own lens. In that way he can serve as an inspiration to any artist. Even if we don’t share subjects or techniques or values there is still so much to learn from Bill Cunningham. He’s a man who takes pictures of clothes and the people who wear them yet has no pretense of being fashionable himself. His blue workman jacket is more function than form and that dichotomy between subject and artist is the defining element of the film. Bill’s modesty only serves to highlight the extravagance of the fashion world and the “exotic birds of paradise” whom he captures on film reveal the true nature of the man behind the camera.