Bill Cunningham is one of the long-revered icons of The New York Times: If you are incredibly lucky, you may catch a glimpse of his blue-jacketed figure walking through the doors of the Times building on Eighth Avenue, camera bag slung around his shoulder, his jaunty step belying his 84 years.
Cunningham has taken fashion photos for over four decades and has two columns in the NYT’s Style section. Everyone is in his thrall, but as Richard Press’ labor-of-love documentary shows, no one really knows who he is.
“Bill Cunningham New York” was released in the U.S. in 2010 and took 10 years to complete — eight of which Press spent trying to get Cunningham to say yes. “Stop that now” or “You can turn off the camera now” are his more frequent admonishments, and to Press’ credit, his lens almost always backs off. One thing we discover: Cunningham hates being conspicuous. Having spent his entire career photographing people decked out in finery, the man himself would do anything to avoid showing off.
Not that Cunningham is in any way a crank. He’s probably the most jovial and least stressed New Yorker you could hope to find. When he smiles his face radiates with happy innocence and his manner is delightful — trusting and sincere with every single person who crosses his path. In one segment, Cunningham’s coworkers throw him a surprise birthday party, and they crowd into the room wearing his trademark workman’s jacket (actually the standard uniform of Paris sanitation workers) and holding photocopies of his face as masks so that “everyone can be Bill!” Cunningham is touched but a little embarrassed by the attention and he tries to scoot into a corner like a little boy.
Cunningham can hardly be called a private person, for he appears to have no personal life. In the film, he shows us around his “apartment” — a rent-controlled studio in Carnegie Hall crammed top to bottom with gray steel filing cabinets containing negatives of every photograph he has ever taken. There is no kitchen. The bathroom is down the hall, shared with his sole neighbor, artist/photographer Editta Sherman. He sleeps on a mattress placed on file cabinets. “This is my closet” he says, and shows two shirts on hangers hooked onto the handles of file cabinets.
In the morning he takes his Schwinn bike out of a broom closet on the first floor (upended for storage) and at night stashes it away again. He’s out on the streets every single day of the year — no blizzard or storm or blackout has ever stopped Cunningham from taking pictures of what people wear, how they hold themselves and how their outfits coincide with what’s happening on the runway or at celebrity parties (both of which Cunningham covers extensively).
Press shows how much Manhattan has changed, its once-bustling garment industry having all but dwindled away, but also how nothing dents Cunningham’s armor, not even the fact that Carnegie Hall quit its artists-in-residence system and he was forced to relocate. To say that the man lives for his work is an understatement. Bill Cunningham and his work are one. The ending scene seems like a prayer to the heavens to let him keep doing this for ever more.