Frivolity or necessity? Fashion often falls to these two categorisations upon criticism and public discourse. While wars rage and climates change, there is a world that is completely surrounded in fashion and embedded in its culture. Bill Cunningham New York explores the life of a photographer who has documented fashion on the street and in society for decades.
Beginning as a hat milliner in the early 1950’s, Bill Cunningham was then drafted to the US Army. After returning, Bill eventually made his way into fashion photojournalism, working across many publications including Women’s Wear Daily, a huge canvas spread in Details magazine, and his “On the Street” and society pages in the New York Times.
Interviews with friends, colleagues and fans (including American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, fashion designer Michael Kors and writer Tom Wolfe) alike all reveal a lack of personal information. No one really seems to know that much about Bill’s life. Few insiders exist, and the nature of Bill’s private life is dealt with tremendous integrity and care in a scene towards the end of the film.
Indeed Cunningham is a man of tremendous integrity with a laborious work ethic. Admiration is seen throughout the fashion world with one scene in particularly capturing his reputation. Cunningham is having troubling getting into a Paris fashion event, when an industry organiser spots and quickly ushers him in past security telling the young person with the clipboard that “this is the most important man in the world.”
Director Richard Press has managed to capture the admiration that encircles Cunningham and even follows Cunningham to Paris whereupon he received the highly prestigious Order of Arts and Letters. In a moving speech, Cunningham sums up the essence of his work, that “he who seeks beauty will find it.” Beauty through fashion is the biggest thrill and stimulation for a man who dresses in the same plain blue jacket everyday and lives in an economically cost-effective life.
Belonging to a trio of recent photographer documentaries with Smash His Camera, Teenage Paparazzo, the documentary also has a connection to The September Issue in its defence of fashion. Bill Cunningham New York coherently and convincingly places the oftentimes silly and outrageous fashions as daringly brave and refreshing. Completely absorbing and rich in humour, the documentary elegantly portrays a photographer’s life through a lens of a different sort.