Film review: Bill Cunningham New York

Duncan Wu is charmed by a modest octogenarian photographer and the vivid street style he documents

September 15, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

Directed by Richard Press

Starring Bill Cunningham, Tom Wolfe and Anna Wintour

Released on DVD on 13 September

Bill Cunningham New York is a thoroughly engaging documentary about a fashion photographer and the city in which he lives and works. “The best fashion show is on the street. It always has been and always will be,” says its protagonist in the opening moments of this film. “I let the street speak to me.”

Now in his eighties, Cunningham went into business as a milliner under the name “William J”, after he dropped out of Harvard University in 1948. After serving in the Korean War he moved into journalism in 1953. He has been photographing fashion since the mid-1960s, but with a difference: as well as attending the shows, he documents what people wear on the street, to show how they rework the designers’ ideas.

“Lots of people have taste,” he says, “but very few are creative. I’m interested in the creative ones.”

The camera follows Cunningham as he cycles the streets of Manhattan looking for his next shot; as he infuriates his layout artist at The New York Times; and as he prepares to move out of the studio at Carnegie Hall that he has occupied for decades. The man who emerges is spry, energetic, modest - and obsessive. “Most of what I take is never published,” he says.

Along the way, the film catches up with his admirers, who include Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and author Tom Wolfe, as well as a number of Bill’s regular subjects, almost all of whom appear to be slightly mad, not least Shail Upadhya, a former United Nations official who spends his days in PVC suits bearing garish tartan designs and dayglo prints, with matching peaked caps. “This used to be my sofa,” he says, emerging in an outlandish patterned suit.

This is the first feature-length film by director Richard Press, who says it took eight years to persuade Cunningham to agree to be filmed. Cunningham’s wariness could have made for blandness, and for some of the time his guard is up.

As a film-maker, Press is not interested in doing anything innovative with the form in which he labours; there is no attempt to do other than observe Cunningham at work and assess his achievement. Such conservatism suits the subject. Anything more adventurous would have been distracting - and Cunningham is quite fascinating enough without visual pyrotechnics.

“I have the feeling he doesn’t sit down and talk to people very much,” says one of Cunningham’s regular subjects, and he clearly loathes talking about himself. Yet over the two years they trailed him, the film-makers coaxed a good deal from their subject. This is nowhere more true than in its concluding interview, in which he is asked only two questions: first about his love life, then his religious faith. The responses are as potent a piece of film-making as you are ever likely to see.

Bill Cunningham New York isn’t just the profile of a photographer; it’s about a creative passion bordering on craziness. A man who lives in an attic surrounded by filing cabinets full of old photographs (an almost Beckettian premise), and who thinks nothing of cycling up and down Manhattan, weaving in and out of the traffic, photographing people in the belief that “fashion is an art form for dressing the body”, cannot be wholly sane.

Indeed, the film proposes that Cunningham fosters in his subjects a corresponding mania: the urge to parade themselves in outrageous costumes - whether it be Kenny Kenny, who wears dresses to society events, or Patrick McDonald, never to be seen without a stylish hat and a large painted-on eyebrow.

This is a rich, varied and entertaining film, full of sights and people not elsewhere to be seen, from Wolfe observing that “people are very pushy socially in New York”, to Brooke Astor on her 100th birthday, declaring “I’m just an ordinary person!” The correct title of this film would not, however, have been Ordinary People.

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