MOVIE REVIEW The man who lived for clothes
An intimate look at Bill Cunningham, NYT street style photographer
Bill Cunningham New York
Directed by Richard Press
Starring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, and Michael Kors
Now Playing at Kendall Square Cinema
The fashion world has seen its fair share of strong personalities and peculiar characters. Ruthlessly honest and demanding Vogue editors, diva supermodels, and celebrity-obsessed designers seem to run rampant. The documentary on Bill Cunningham is not really about a renowned fashion photographer, but rather an artist and visual historian who happens to love his subjects very, very much.
Bill Cunningham is the legendary street style photographer who is perhaps the sole reason that street style fashion blogs even exist. He has chronicled the street fashion in New York for the last four decades in The New York Times Sunday pages’ “On the Street.” His contribution to the fashion industry has been to humanize the clothes. Instead of capturing portraits of towering Amazons storming down the catwalk, he brings forth real moments of real men and women.
The documentary transitions from framing Cunningham as an artist to a historian. As much attention as Cunningham pays to Parisian spring trench coats, he gives fair due to the phenomenon of jeggings and chain belts. There is nothing for him that is too high-end or too low-end; as long as the clothes and details are interesting, Cunningham will document it.
Despite being considered an arbiter of trends and taste in the fashion world, the documentary underscores Cunningham’s own distance from the industry. Although he may attend charity galas and runway shows, his only mission is to take pictures of interesting clothes on interesting people. His refusal to “wine and dine” and accept even a glass of water at such events shows his incredible, deeply-rooted principles. As much as he appreciates beauty and the fashion industry, he draws a definitive line between it and himself. His ascetic lifestyle (he has a penchant for $3.00 egg sandwiches and sporting a royal blue smock worn by French garbagemen) and constant disclaimers against the “celebrity” or “famous folks” highlights his conscious effort to maintain a distance.
On the other hand, Cunningham is somewhat of a “celebrity” himself. Despite his aversion to being tied down to the material world — he often refused to be paid for assignments so he could work unconstrained — there is an implication that Cunningham enjoys the reverence those in the fashion world pay him. He admits that it is quite difficult to be “honest and straight” in the fashion world, which is understandable since the core of the fashion industry is material possessions — clothing.
Cunningham himself is an intriguing subject. The film marvelously creates a narrative about this man in the same quiet, unassuming manner that parallels Cunningham’s own approach to his work. There is light humor — but also a reverence — for the subject that is quite rare in the modern world of character exploitation and disparagement. One may argue that the perspective is biased and that the camera may dwell too warmly on the eccentric maverick, coloring everything with a soft glow of adoration. Then again, there is a boyish charm to Cunningham that has not disappeared — even at the age of 80. Whether he is clapping his hands gleefully or darting about on his Schwinn, he is always besieged by such energy and vigor — passion, really — for his line of work that one cannot help but smile.
That is not to say that director Richard Press does not want to explore Cunningham’s humanity. Despite Cunningham’s humbleness and almost pious nature, he is not above light touches of condescension. In a fit of excitement in explaining the beauty of dress patterns to the camera, he scoffs a bit at his tough and tumble layout producer: “What would a lumberjack like you know?” Even toward fashion, Cunningham turns a critical eye. If a design is sent down a runway that has been only a mildly reworked imitation of something seen 10 years ago, Cunningham only offers a paltry glance. Due to the man’s very private life, questions about his personal life usually taper off into wisps, or he brings the conversation back to his work and his career.
One really does not need to appreciate fashion or street style to enjoy the film. Any artist, anyone really passionate about their work, will find aspects of Cunningham that resonate with him or her. The attachment to his subjects — clothes — may be a bit puzzling to the masses. What can be appreciated is an intriguing story about an extraordinarily principled man with such a passion for his work that it becomes his life.