The man behind the lens

Bill Cunningham New York reveals a more genuine side of the fashion industry


This is a story of a man and his city. The man — legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham — has faithfully documented street style for The New York Times for decades. The city, as seen through his lens, hosts a menagerie of creative getups ranging from the elegantly subtle to the outrageously flashy. Cunningham’s extensive portfolio serves as a comprehensive anthology of the last half-century of New York fashion. Even now, still energetic at age 80, he bikes through the heart of New York City every day, chronicling noteworthy outfits with his analog film camera.

Despite his ubiquitous presence around the city, Bill Cunningham remains a fiercely private individual; he was so reluctant to participate in this documentary that the film took 10 years to make. According to director Richard Press, “eight [years] to convince Bill to be filmed and two to shoot and edit the film.” The result, a fascinating character study, grants us a peek into the simple life of one of the fashion industry’s most celebrated figures.

The film reveals Cunningham’s surprisingly spartan living arrangements — he lives in a small studio above Carnegie Hall, unfurnished except for the wall-to-wall file cabinets filled with all (all!) of his film negatives. He needs no such frivolities as kitchens and private bathrooms; his “closet” consists of a few coat hangers dangling off drawer handles. The state of his studio serves as a fitting metaphor for his own life: there is no separate professional life or personal life because he lives entirely to serve his art.

By refusing to accept payment for much of his work, Cunningham has made it a point to not “fall into the traps of the rich.” His extensive work with Details magazine in the ’60s and ’70s, for example, was completely unpaid; publishing house Condé Nast has repeatedly tried to make him cash his paychecks, but to no avail. Cunningham explains, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do … money is the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom, is the most expensive.”

How ironic, then, that Cunningham has dedicated his life to an industry that prizes appearance and to a city that values status above all. In a world of overexposure and overconsumption, he cares nothing of celebrity or social rank. He’ll only take your picture if he likes what you’re wearing. As one colleague notes in the film, “Bill is a true egalitarian; however, that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of cultural vision and hierarchies. He just treats it all the same.”

Standing on a street corner, outfitted in his signature blue smock (identical to ones worn by Parisian street sweepers), the octogenarian could easily be mistaken for one of the hoi polloi. But perhaps what sets him apart from his industry colleagues — his humility, his anonymity, and his resolute morality — are what draw them to his side. Highly influential industry insiders — including Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour and perennial style icon Iris Apfel — feature in the documentary, all singing endless praises of his upbeat personality and his unwavering passion. They speak of him with wonder and admiration of the integrity of his character, and perhaps also a hint of nostalgia — they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

This film is the story of Bill Cunningham, and of the Bill Cunningham New York. He’s old school inside and out, from his film (never digital) camera to his refreshingly wholesome All-American values. He’s among the last of a dying breed. Watch and learn, kids.