I am certainly no clotheshorse and can hardly tell Prada from Versace; however, fashion has always fascinated me. From Haute Couture to street fashion, clothing can tell you countless things about both the designer and the person wearing it. And yet, it can be difficult to discover ‘the next Big Thing’. It takes an expert to identify trends early and capture them in their glory. Among the best in the business is Bill Cunningham, one of New York’s best-known fashion photographers. Weaving in and out through time and fashion trends, Bill Cunningham New York (2011) directed by Richard Press follows Cunningham’s life work, and his unabated passion for style.
Cunningham makes for a fascinating study. He’s a jovial man with a wide smile and cheerful demeanor that hides a serious and discerning eye. Wearing his trademark blue jacket and tan pants, Cunningham hops on his bike every morning and braves the New York crowds to snap pictures of people who experiment with fashion, taking runway styles and inspiration from the street. As many of the fashion icons interviewed in the film note, Cunningham has an impressive understanding of trend and taste. Anna Wintour of Vogue recalls how he began shooting her when she was just an up and comer, and notes that to be photographed was a compliment, but to be ignored was a disaster. Screw the paparazzi; Cunningham was the one with the real power.
For a man of such notoriety, the details of Cunningham’s life are unknown to many of his colleagues and admirers. It is here that lays the most captivating aspect of this film. The mystery surrounding Cunningham is at first established, and then gently prodded away, revealing the man behind the camera. After serving time in the army, Cunningham embraced his love for fashion, and launched a career as a milliner before moving into fashion photography in the 1970’s. Despite having worked for major fashion publications such as Women’s Wear Daily, and his current post at the New York Times, Cunningham lives a modest life. He also possesses a hard ethical stance on his art and has refused money for some of his work in an effort to preserve his artistic independence.
Cunningham is truly an arresting figure whose joyful personality drew me in like a magnet. His ability to predict and track trends comes from intuition and his knowledge of fashion history. His passion for his work continues to burn after all these years. Cunningham is interested in the true power of fashion. It’s whimsy and beauty. He loves the colourful, the risk takers. People like Patrick McDonald, aka Dandy, and Kenny Kenny have drawn his eye and have reaped the benefits due to his love for their outrageous fashion and sense of play.
Bill Cunningham New York renders a beautiful portrait of its subject, and dissuades any notion that fashion is for the frivolous. Cunningham’s work shows how fashion distills time, place, and culture, revealing the interplay of the race, gender, sexuality and class of his subjects. As the fashion around him shifts with time, Cunningham stands apart in his blue and tan ‘uniform’, his method and appearance the only constant in a sea of change. Currently 84 years of age, Cunningham is still going strong, taking to the streets to find the latest in fashion trends, and working tirelessly to capture the life around him.