Film Reviews

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

By • Jun 8th, 2011 •

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A bride sits beside her groom in a peddled bike taxi on 57th Street in front of Bergdorf Goodman. A chill permeates the air as this early spring wedded couple has tiptoed in the freshly planted tulips along Park Avenue and dashed across 5th Avenue with Tiffany in the background. At the behest of their photographer, they gain a momentary reprieve sitting in the pedicab. Later, this particular image appears in The New York Times.

No. This image or scene does not appear in the film about Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer that I now have learned is a New York icon. It was a wedding that I was shooting a few years ago. I distinctly remember an older gentleman on a bicycle photographing the couple and smiling at me, as so many people do when I am in the city shooting the dreaded wedding assignment. I discounted it and reciprocated with a false smile since I loathe weddings and detest the faux paparazzi that converge on wedding couples with such joviality.

At the studio where I worked, Cunningham’s page was displayed. At first, I thought it was an album design for the couple, then I scowled that credit was not given to the photographer, and then I realized that it was not my shot. Who shot my wedding and had it published? Who is Bill Cunningham? I went to this film screening with sleeves rolled up.

It took moments into the documentary to succumb to Bill Cunningham’s infectious smile and personality. He radiates exuberance for life while demonstrating his zeal for his lifelong passion and the bravado that it takes to achieve an impressive collection.

The cast of characters that comprise the fashion industry and New York society that encompass the world of Bill Cunningham could have been drawn from the imagination of Tim Burton: An ancient woman in a posh apartment adorned in what appears to be millions-worth in bracelets, a former diplomat qho poses with outrageously loud costume-like outfits (one used to be the fabric of his furniture), Patrick McDonald in face paint and signature hats, a bald man in a dress, socialites, fashion publishing bigwigs, and his next door neighbor, photographer Edita Sherman, still thriving well into her nineties.

At the center of these orbiting eccentrics, Cunningham remains grounded, humble, and a shining light to all. He traverses in the world of fashion, of galas and balls, of wealthy friends with the name of Astor. Yet, his existence is a contradiction. He lives in a tiny studio sans kitchen with a single shared bathroom on the floor of his rent-controlled Carnegie Hall apartment, covers the streets of New York on his bicycle, still shoots roll film that needs to be developed chemically, and has rejected payment based on his philosophy that money equals ownership of his being by the paying party. At his age, most have passed on or are sitting in a home for the ill and infirm.

He addresses the issue that by trained professional photographer standards, he may be considered a fraud based on his point and shoot method of quickly firing shots at unsuspecting passersby. He knows professional photographers, his neighbor; Edita Sherman is a well-accomplished photographer. So, he does not profess to employ their type of craft. However, this hat designer turned fashion authority is using the snapshot to visually enforce his observations and make statements. His work, stored in obtrusive file cabinets that jostle him in his cramped apartment, holds the history of fashion during his tenure.

Every authoritative voice interviewed respects and speaks of him admirably. The film delves into his personal life which is unbeknownst to mostly all interviewed. Bill Cunningham lives his private life as he does as a professional: behind a camera lens looking in. His professional life is his private life. He opts to eat takeout in the office than dine at functions, sits alone at breakfast, and rides the streets of the city on two wheels dodging traffic.

His daily tasks require that he be bold to approach people on the street and capture their image. During shooting, two girls are threatening him after he photographs them walking down the block. He just smiles.

At this point in life, in his eighties, he is embattled with a looming eviction from a place that he has called home for decades. Within that building, artists created and artists lived, artists such as Marlon Brando.

James Nachtwey is another New York lone soul who is regarded as the best war photographer of all time. It is well worth the effort to view WAR PHOTOGRAPHER to see the parallels that run in Nachtwey’s and Cunningham’s lives. Then there is another photographer that is loathed by many, notoriously by Jackie Kennedy. Ron Galella is the subject of SMASH HIS CAMERA. The Bronx born paparazzi was sued by Mrs. Kennedy, and punched by Marlon Brando.

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