Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

Despite being on a first-name basis with many of the stars of the fashion world (Anna Wintour famously remarked that "we all dress for Bill"), Cunningham retains his independence.


New Yorkers know that the essence of their city is not to be found in the tourist monuments or heavily-publicized events from which out-of-towners form their impression; the real New York is to be found in the streets where, as 8 million plus individuals go about their daily lives, there’s always something interesting going on.
Photographer Bill Cunningham is a faithful chronicler of one aspect of the city’s life: its sense of fashion and style. After stints at, among other publications, Details and Women’s Wear Daily, he began writing for the New York Times and currently does two columns for them: "On the Street," which spots new fashion trends as displayed by anonymous New Yorkers, and "Evening Hours," which chronicles the charity balls of the rich and famous. His body of work forms a visual archive of city life since the 1960s.
Richard Press’ documentary Bill Cunningham New York is aptly titled because it’s hard to imagine Cunningham living and working anywhere else. Coming from a working-class, Catholic background, he began his career as a hat maker (under the brand "William J.") in a studio above Carnegie Hall. He began writing about fashion and then added photography to his arsenal after a publisher gave him a camera and told him to "use it like a pencil," i.e., to take photographs the way he took notes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite being on a first-name basis with many of the stars of the fashion world (Anna Wintour famously remarked that "we all dress for Bill"), Cunningham retains his independence. He resigned from Women’s Wear Daily after they changed some of his copy and chooses his shots based not on whether a celebrity is passing or a new fashion line being displayed, but whether what is before him presents the opportunity for an interesting photograph. A frugal, work-centered lifestyle plays a large role in maintaining this independence; he lived for 60 years in a small studio apartment (only moving when all tenants of the Carnegie Hall Studios were evicted so the space could be converted to other uses) whose primary furnishings were the filing cabinets holding his negatives. Cunningham (now in his 80s) still gets around town on a bicycle.
Press likes to say that Bill Cunningham New York took 10 years to make: two to shoot it, preceded by eight to convince Cunningham to permit the film to be made. Cunningham is an extremely private person (even close friends don’t seem to know much about his personal life) and he was not willing to have the filmmaking process intrude on his working style. As a result Bill Cunningham New York was shot on the fly, using small consumer cameras and no crew, and the result is a film which captures the spirit of Cunningham’s work and life. For the most part Press respects Cunningham’s desire for privacy, only once throwing him for a loop with a few unnecessary personal questions about his religion (he goes to church every Sunday) and sex life (Cunningham says he’s never had an intimate relationship and doesn’t miss it).
There’s a saying among New Yorkers that even if you’re one in a million there’s seven more like you right here in the five boroughs, but I think Bill Cunningham might be more like one in a billion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: New York City is generous to people who follow their own star and what might be considered eccentricity in a more conformist environment is accepted as individuality in the city. Cunningham may not live or work quite like anyone else but it’s clear that he is following a path of his own choosing, is loving every minute of it, and in the process has produced a body of work which can stand next to anyone’s. | Sarah Boslaugh

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