Bill Cunningham New York

I was an octogenarian fashionista.

In Megumi Sasaki‘s delightful 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy, we were introduced to a pair of true New York City eccentrics. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a married couple of modest means, nevertheless devoted their adult lives to their shared passion for contemporary art, spending most of their income on new artworks and filling their small apartment with an amazing collection — in the process befriending many of the artists whose works they admired.

Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary photographed and directed by Richard Press, has the same only-in-Manhattan flavor. Where else could we discover a character like Cunningham, the New York Times photographer and visual essayist whose two columns, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” send him out on a bicycle, armed only with his camera, to record the daily nuances of the love of his life: fashion. The fact that Cunningham is eighty years old and sleeps in one of the last of Carnegie Hall’s artist studios on a cot amid filing cabinets full of pictures (he has since moved) only fits the legend more perfectly.

To the indefatigable Cunningham, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” and his widely imitated street-fashion page has made him something of a lucky charm to such fashionistas as Vogue‘s Anna Wintour and author Tom Wolfe, some of the talking heads along with his Carnegie Hall neighbor Editta Sherman, who deserves a documentary of her own. We learn about Cunningham’s careers with Details magazine and Women’s Wear Daily (they had a falling-out), and observe him at work, termitically chronicling the temper of the times. A few revelations: He likes shooting people in the rain or snow because there’s no time for them to be self-conscious; he always shoots film, never digital; he’s not gay, just a lifelong bachelor whose motto is: “If it isn’t something a woman could wear, I have no interest in it.”

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Cunningham is not impressed with the rich and famous. For him it’s the clothes, not so much the people in them. Put him on a prime midtown corner on a nice day when the peacocks strut and he’s happy. As he remarked after being awarded the French government’s title of Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters, “He who seeks beauty will find it.” A beautiful portrait of a truly happy man.


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