Take the values espoused by any of the great spiritual traditions, and you will find them embodied in the subject of the wonderful documentary "BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK" (10), an 80-year-old gentleman who has spent the last 40 years photographing street style and couture in New York. To me he is a modern-day Christ figure--modest, buoyant, and faithfully and unceremoniously living his values, "to be honest and straight" in a city and an industry where those qualities are often in short supply.
Cunningham has been soaking up fashion in New York since the late 40s, working in department stores, in advertising, and as a writer covering fashion for Women's Wear Daily, the Chicago Tribune, and Details magazine. In the 60s, someone gave him a camera and he tumbled into photographing what he finds on the street. For many years he has been contributing two weekly columns to the New York Times--"On the Street," depicting the style he captures out on the street every day, and "Evening Hours," his photographic chronicle of New York society.
From the beginning of this appreciative depiction, Cunningham's delightful personality shines through, and I relaxed into watching an enjoyable film about a city and a subject that I love. But gradually the significance of what I was witnessing snuck up on me--I was aware of a dawning comprehension that I was seeing greatness of a kind I would not have expected to find in a film about from a fashion photographer.
It's apparent in both aspects of Cunningham's work. His idea of street style is so different from what you'd find in most fashion mags--what he is on about is genuine appreciation of the creativity he finds on the street. He will do anything for a shot of a great shoe or an interesting hemline or an inventive ensemble, in use by an actual person. "You have to let the street speak to you," he confides--and because he has been listening so attentively and for so long, he has contributed a visual history of New York style dating back decades.
Cunningham doesn't want to embarrass anyone; it's not about who's in and who's out--it's all equally in. In fact, his former editor at Details tells a pivotal story of his falling-out with Women's Wear Daily; he had photographed items seen on the runway and contrasted them with pictures of real women wearing those items on the street. The magazine changed his copy to make it critical of the ordinary women, and he was absolutely devastated and "beyond upset," and ended his relationship with the daily. Because his approach is so appreciative, his subjects are always delighted to be captured by him; people like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, and Annette de la Renta agreed to be interviewed for the film out of their obvious affection for him, and the famously frosty Wintour warmly acknowledges that "we all get dressed for Bill."
Yet Cunningham is no celebrity worshipper. He's interested in clothes, not celebrity; the film shows him declining to photograph Catherine Deneuve at a Paris event because she wasn't wearing anything interesting. He chooses what society events to attend based on the worthiness of the charity or cause being promoted, and refuses to accept even a glass of water while working the events because he doesn't want to be bought. And he is interested in invention wherever he finds it; one decked-out transvestite recalls appreciatively how Cunningham lobbied the Times to publish pictures of him in a dress long before that was acceptable.
Cunningham is remarkably unaffected by the extravagance he observes. He travels all over Manhattan, day and night, by bicycle, riding from event to event with a orange safety vest over his dark jacket. He appears almost everywhere, including Paris fashion week, in the same trademark blue cotton work jacket worn by Paris street sweepers, because it is practical and he likes the color, and rather than sitting at the end of the runway with a straight-on shot like the other photographers, he sits off to the side and only lifts his camera when he discerns something really interesting. He knows his stuff, too.
For fifty years, Cunningham (like a host of other artists) lived over Carnegie Hall in a spartan, rent-controlled studio without a bathroom or kitchen, lined with filing cabinets filled with negatives of his photos. ("Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom?" he asks.) He slept on a single mattress among the cabinets and hung his few clothes on the handle of one of the cabinets. At the time this documentary was being made, Carnegie Hall was in the process of evicting its venerable artist tenants to use the space for other things. Yet Cunningham faced his impending displacement with characteristic equanimity; "I suppose it will bother me at the time," he says, "but you can't concern yourself with that nonsense."
Cunningham's choices are not an affectation and they don't come with disdain for anyone else. He patches his rain ponchos with duct tape and survives on simple $3 sandwiches--but though he makes kidding comments about "damn wasteful New Yorkers" he also notes that his choices simply work for him. He is genuinely self-effacing; the film shows him being honored as an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, a very prestigious honor, and he appears in his blue work jacket and snaps pictures up until the award is presented. He gives a very gracious acceptance speech in which he protests that he doesn't deserve the recognition since he is only doing what he loves, and then chokes back a little sob of gratitude as he remarks, "He who seeks beauty will find it."
And find it he does. More than that, he evokes it. I saw a whole documentary about Anna Wintaur and never saw a fraction of the humanity that she reveals here when talking about Cunningham. He calls nearly everyone "kid," and everyone from designer Michael Kors to the wait staff at charity events to philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor greets Cunningham with affection. Cunningham doesn't "get a lift" out of being with society people, as Tom Wolfe observes--but it does seem they get a lift out of being with him. He works day and night, but nearly always with a grin that indicates he is having the time of his life. His child-like joy is infectious, too; in one scene, his colleagues at the Times surprise him with a very endearing birthday celebration, and he literally jumps up and down when he blows out the candles.
The film contains an interview with Cunningham from about twenty years ago where he talks passionately about fashion and its importance. He calls it the armor we use to survive the reality of everyday life. You couldn't do away with fashion, he comments; that would be like "doing away with civilization." It's a typically buoyant Cunningham moment, but it only captures a part of what I observed. There is something about the quality and enthusiasm of his attention to the people who cross his path that struck me as more than just style photography or society reporting--it is a ministry of presence that people respond to without understanding it.
Director Richard Press, here with his first feature, approaches the task of telling Cunningham's story with patience and a discerning eye that befits its subject. It took Press eight years to persuade Cunningham to go along with the project, and then he had to approach the filming process with great care, filming only with small, handheld cameras that did not compromise Cunningham's goal of being unobtrusive in his own work. Press's patience--which also meant waiting for the rare moments with Cunningham would consent to be filmed--pays off here in a very sensitive portrait of an extraordinary soul. There's a fine interaction late in the film when Cunningham discusses his family, his solitary life, and his religious faith, that could only come about as a result of the painstaking work of trustbuilding necessary to this subject. By that point in the film, I had fully realized I was in the presence of greatness, of a living example of all the values I hold dear and can only dream of embodying in anything like the fullness of this fashion photographer.
The end credits play to accompaniment of the Velvet Underground's song, "I'll Your Mirror." It's a fitting tribute to the portrait just witnessed, and a lasting inspiration: "I'll be your mirror/reflect what you are/in case you don't know./When you think the night has seen your mind,/that inside you're twisted and unkind,/let me stand to show you that you are blind./Please put down your hands 'cause I see you./I find it hard to believe you don't know/the beauty you are./But if you don't, let me be your eyes,/a hand in your darkness so you won't be afraid."