Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: Bill Cunningham New York

There’s a merciless line in the fifth season of Absolutely Fabulous. The manic but keenly observant assistant Bubble, in a moment of cutting clarity, mocked the occupation of celebrity stylist:

“Oh, I’m too rich and important to ask for free clothes for myself. Will you do it for me? Will you be my ‘stylist’?”

The tireless New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham would agree with her. In fact, in his acceptance speech of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French Minister of Culture, awarded in recognition of his photographic chronicle of New York high fashion, he stated that his love of photography was never motivated by celebrities. He often didn’t know who he photographed, and he in fact didn’t care to know most of the time. He has no patience with celebrities who are "styled" by others. He only cared about what people were wearing and how they were able to carry it off. It’s all about the clothing and a sense of style. What’s unsaid is that his fascination was in how the look, captured in the moment, is the key to understanding his subject’s personality.

Bill Cunningham is what one calls a real character, and the documentary Bill Cunningham New York makes no attempt to explain why. A former hat designer active in the fashion industry, Cunningham picked up a camera sometime in the 50s to photograph who he believed to be the most fascinatingly dressed people in New York, and never stopped. Unlike so many other industry photographers, he does not arrive at fashion shoots with armies of assistants: in fact, he doesn’t even do photo shoots. The street is his canvas and his camera is his brush. His ability to capture the truly fashionable of New York from all walks of life, while simply being out and about on the street, is his gift. It is in those moments, which are not choreographed within an inch of their lives by a team of make-up artists, wardrobe handlers, lighting specialists and the aforementioned stylists, that he felt he could truly capture the way a person wore his or her clothes. 

Cunningham is 80 years old, lives in an apartment decorated mainly for utility purposes (it is entirely populated by filing cabinets of his old photographs, categorized by year dating back a half-century, and surround his mattress), rides around on a bike and is joyfully tireless (or is that tirelessly joyful?). He is gentle and energetic, and is not prone to anger. Cunningham made his name with a chance photograph of the extremely reclusive Greta Garbo that ran in the New York Times, and his contribution of candid celebrity photos about town quickly gave rise to a regular feature in the venerable paper that still carries on today. He even does Podcasts and his column appears online.   

Cunningham has no family, attends every fashionable event and by virtue of his status, is often one of the few photographers to wrangle invitations to closed events such as Brooke Astor’s centenary birthday. Given that he rides around town in a distinctive blue painter’s smock – he wears them because the outfit has more storage for his equipment – some have mistaken him for a transient. For instance, at Paris Fashion Week, he was initially blocked from entry by an unaware assistant at the media line, until someone spots him and ferries him in, admonishing her by saying “this is the most important person in the world!”

Cunningham is never dazzled or easily impressed with celebrity. He may not sew a stitch, but he understands fashion. Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour makes several appearances in Bill Cunningham New York, saying “we all get dressed for Bill”. If the single most important person in the multi-billion dollar global fashion industry says that the industry collectively dresses to attract the attention of this unassuming and perfectly nice, hard-working man, that shouts volumes. His perennial quest for the most interesting, subversive, original fashion informs the industry, since a photograph of something new often inspires the newest trend within the next few months. 

Cunningham treats the fashions and their wearers with the utmost respect. He also never judges his subjects or ridicules them the way that reality TV judges do, as evidenced by his efforts in the late 80s to have his images of the drag artist Kenny Kenny featured in the Times (they would not run pictures of a man in a dress, despite the fact that he wore them with contrasting combat boots). It almost seems as if Cunningham is blissfully unaware of any influences or values that may deem something “acceptable” or not. He and his work inform the industry without ever meaning to, and help to shape its direction by virtue of osmosis. One may say that he’s the fashion whisperer. It’s no accident that the documentary is named Bill Cunningham New York, because his life’s work captures a half-century of its titular metropolis’s ever-changing citizens.

Perhaps the most revealing revelation the documentary brings to life is the fact that this is someone who never set out simply to make it an industry or to become influential. He simply photographs what he considers the most beautiful thing. He loves to do it, and he is motivated by nothing else than the simple desire to see people at their most interesting or at their best. Cunningham’s regular columns showcasing celebrity sightings in the Times and formerly in Women’s Wear Daily have been copied, and similar spreads appear in tonier publications such as Vanity Fair and in celebrity magazines like Us Weekly. In other words, this is someone who has found their passion and turned it into his life. Bill Cunningham lives, breathes, eats and sleeps photographing fashion, even if he eats sparingly and by all accounts seems to spend so much time out at events that sleep will only get in his way. Bill Cunningham New York is a paean to loving one’s work, to the point that it doesn’t even seem like he’s working. 

The Blogger once spoke to someone who displayed a similar passion to his work. When I asked him what he did, he said, “I quit ‘working’ twenty years ago. This is what I do now.” He would identify with Bill Cunningham. If you hate your job or you had a terrible day at the office, this film is a perfect antidote, and it does what so many manufactured narratives fail to do: inspire.

Bill Cunningham New York presented at and captured numerous awards at various film festivals in 2010. It is now enjoying a limited commercial run in most major markets, after opening in New York on March 16, 2011.

Official trailer: