Having known Bill Cunningham only from his infamous street style photographs, I was unsure what to discover about the man who took them. However, it was a pleasure to get to know a sweet, sharp and outrageously zany New Yorker in his 80s, through the screening of Bill Cunningham New York at Cobalt Studios.
The documentary, released in 2010, follows Cunningham around the streets of NYC, where he believes “the fashion show is…always has been, always will be”. Archive footage of Cunningham working in the 80s was hard to differentiate from his contemporary work, demonstrating just how original his practise is and how it transcends time. Interviews with some of his greatest admirers were also incorporated, including Anna Wintour, Annette De la Renta and Iris Apfel. These aspects were woven together through clips of Cunningham cycling around on his 29th bike (he has had 28 stolen over the years), seamlessly connecting scenes with the ease of Cunningham’s cycling through captivating cinematography.
Getting to know the photographer through his fellow Carnegie Hall residents illustrated the long history Cunningham had with innovative art and artists. Editta Sherman modelled Cunningham’s hat creations that drew in the likes of Joan Crawford and Marilyn Munro with unintentional hilarity, but he remarks he “wasn’t interested [in them] because they weren’t stylish.” Cunningham doesn’t care about celebrity but about beauty. A statement that caused Cunningham, and myself, to weep a little was during his acceptance speech for his ‘Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ award, in which he concluded “he who seeks beauty will find it.” Cunningham is a true testament to this. In keeping with his disinterest in celebrity, the photographer was also unconcerned with money. For him “If you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do”, something he demonstrates even when offered a plate of food at a charity event, “oh no” he replies with his signature, but genuine grin, “I eat with my eyes”, refusing even a glass of water.
The film only hinted at Cunningham’s personal life, with his sexuality remaining an ambiguous topic. While he reveals he attends church every Sunday and was raised in a working-class Catholic family, his long standing friendship with Lady Astor suggests he may have come from a more well-to-do background. These uncertainties are unimportant however, as Cunningham's eye and talent should be the focus of celebration.
I couldn’t get enough of Cunningham’s cheeky and joyous smile and I often found myself giggling away at his quirks, while also starring up at the screen in wondrous admiration at the beauty he manages to capture. I urge you to watch Bill Cunningham New York if you too want to be warmed and inspired. Bill Cunningham not only had a keen eye for true fashion but he knew true beauty.