An unassuming old man with a camera stands in the crowd outside one of the most prestigious fashion shows in Paris, trying to get in. The old man shyly and politely shows his press credentials to the young woman serving as gatekeeper, but he looks unremarkable and unfashionable, humbly dressed in exactly the sort of blue work jacket the Paris street cleaners wear. The harried staff person seems ready to dismiss him, until her horrified boss rushes forward to admonish the girl and personally escort the old man past the velvet ropes. “Please,” he tells his employee, “this is the most important person on earth.”
The “most important person on earth”—or at least in the world of fashion—is 80-year old Bill Cunningham, but he’d laugh at the suggestion. The subject of the new documentary Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, and the director (speaking at the screening I attended in Chicago) reports that Bill hasn’t even seen the film: he’s far too humble, and far too busy. The rest of us can watch Bill Cunningham New York and wish our lives were a little more like his; he’s having too much fun being Bill Cunningham.
An endlessly energetic and infectiously happy man, Bill has been using his camera to document the fashion world for fifty years. He is a fixture at Paris fashion shows and high-profile charity galas, but he treats those rarefied events in exactly the same way he does his real beat, which is the streets of New York. His “On the Street” page in The New York Times captures “street style,” the idea—which Bill more or less pioneered—that there is beauty and significance to be found in the place where designer form meets real world function. “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life,” he says.
In Bill Cunningham New York, we see the man at work trying to capture the ever-evolving trends, and waiting hours in the rain for a quick shot of a “stunner,” a “poet with clothes.” He is self-deprecatory about his photography— “Real photographers would call me a fraud”—but he is the master of the stolen moment; he takes quick, careless snaps like he is waving hello, or as though he were lightly tossing appreciative flowers towards beauty. Zipping all over town on his 29th Schwinn bicycle (28 have been stolen—so far), and darting into traffic to capture a well-cut coat or a pair of shoes in motion, Bill is a war correspondent on the front lines of fashion, an ornithologist capturing rare birds in flight, a cultural anthropologist documenting the ever-changing soul of a city.
He is also, we discover, the rarest of birds himself. Much of the pleasure of Bill Cunningham New York comes from the incongruities. Bill hops back and forth between high society mansions and the cultural cathedrals of the city, but he himself lives an ascetic existence in a shabby, rent controlled studio in Carnegie Hall, with a bed-on-boards, a bathroom down the hall, and a maze of filing cabinets containing the negative of every photo he’s ever taken. He loves fashion to the exclusion of almost everything else in his life, but he wears the same cheap coat every day—unless it’s raining, and then he wears a worn rain poncho patched with duct-tape. He is friends with the wealthiest designers, patrons, and moguls of New York, but he couldn’t give a damn about money. “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”
Most remarkably—and most rarely—he likes people. In a business that lives or dies with what’s “in” and what’s “out,” Bill says “everything is in.” He is fascinated by living fashion, by what people are actually doing with the clothes designers tell them to wear. (“I just listen to the street,” he says.) In a culture that thrives on snark, Bill doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. (He ended his long relationship with Women’s Wear Daily after an editor changed the copy on some of his photos to be mean-spirited.)
His photographs celebrate people expressing themselves through style, and Bill treats them all equally, from punks to princes, from housewives to heiresses. We see random local people who have been elevated to style icons by Bill, and we see fashion goddesses who are still insecure about whether Bill will take their picture on any given day. Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, is one of the most powerful women in fashion (as well as a style icon in her own right), but she still craves the approval of the mad shutterbug. “I’ve said it many times: we all get dressed for Bill,” Wintour says in the film. “And it’s one snap, two snaps—or else he ignores you, which is death.” (“I don’t see the people,” Bill says. “I just see the clothes.” He laughs at photographers elbowing each other to get a picture of Catherine Deneuve: “She wasn’t wearing anything interesting.”)
I am not a fashion fanatic—though I live with one—but I was fascinated and infected by Bill’s enthusiasm, and his joyous, unfailingly positive attitude towards his art. Throughout Bill Cunningham New York, the filmmakers circle around the not-always-cooperative Bill, picking up pieces of his story and looking for brief glimpses of his life outside of work. But Bill Cunningham’s work is his life: he has friends—including the handful of eccentric old timers still housed in Carnegie Hall’s famous studios— but he claims never to have had a romantic relationship. (“I never had time,” he says.) The one moment in the film when he becomes emotional is when an interviewer asks him about religion—he is a practicing Catholic and attends church regularly—but even then Bill says little except that it is important to him.
The religion angle is a clue, however, to what makes Bill Cunningham so fascinating, and such enjoyable, life-affirming company. In All About Eve, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) says “I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life. And once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray.” That’s how Bill Cunningham lives in fashion, and (unlike Addision DeWitt) he relishes not just the culture but the people within it. It gives him a singular joy, the beatific, untouchable contentment of a secular saint.
Whether you give a damn about fashion or not, you can expect to walk out of Bill Cunningham New York wishing you had such a calling in your life, that you could so whole-heartedly embrace such a passion, and that you could take such playful, unmitigated pleasure in your work.