If you were to spot an 80-year-old man sneaking pictures of you walking across the street, you might not take it well. If that man turns out to be Bill Cunningham, consider it the highest form of fashion flattery. Designer Anna Wintour certainly does, exclaiming with sincerity: “We all get dressed for Bill!”
In Richard Press’ documentary Bill Cunningham: New York, the famed photographer finds himself on the opposite side of the camera for the first time. The result is a hugely charming, informative and even moving portrait of the octogenarian in his unending mission to capture “street style” in motion. Clad in his signature modest blue coat and riding around the Big Apple on his trusty bicycle, Cunningham eschews a lifestyle of glamorous photo-shoots in favour of maintaining his status as a free agent.
Focusing his attention almost exclusively on the average lady’s sense of style and reporting his findings in the pages of The New York Times, he’s created a body of work that chronicles the history of fashion in North America and has earned him the respect of countless designers and publishers around the world.
This means his approval carries a considerable amount of weight. Wintour herself fears the shame of seeing Bill’s camera remain at his side with silent indifference as she passes. Other designers have even been caught red-handed reusing each other’s designs on the runway thanks to Bill’s sharp memory and catalogue of photos, stored in the filing cabinets lining his home. In spite of his position of status in their world, however, he remains a quiet presence, content to go about his work without passing judgment on those around him.
They, in turn, can’t help but admit on-camera how curious they are about the eccentric gentleman who calls everybody “kid” and refuses to ever “eat on the job” (as he puts it), whether he’s attending a catered gala event or resting between runway presentations during Paris Fashion Week. They also remain completely in-the-dark regarding his personal history and private life, something of a feat given Cunningham’s constant presence in their lives over the decades. Though some details are divulged, Press clearly respects his subject’s right to privacy.
What does become abundantly clear during the course of the film is how completely Cunningham surrendered his life to the one thing he knew would always bring him pleasure. As he puts it, upon being declared an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture: “It’s as true today as it ever was – he who seeks beauty will find it.” If his infectious grin is anything to go by, we’d all do well to take in the sights a little more often.
Bill Cunningham: New York plays through May 26 at Cinema du Parc. Visit The New York Times to read the photographer’s own thoughts on the latest trends.