A review of Bill Cunningham New York

Outside the catwalk venues of New York, waif-like models drift by in clouds of colour and fabric, nonchalantly texting, eyes masked behind their oversized sunglasses, ignoring the furious clicks and flashes of cameras. Look a little closer – past the throngs of models, celebrities and paparazzi – to the streets beyond and you may just spot Bill Cunningham. 

Dressed in a simple, unassuming blue anorak and chinos (his staple outfit), Bill circles around the well dressed of the streets, contentedly snapping away. Yet unlike many fashion photographers, Bill doesn’t seek out subjects of big name or fortune; his true interest is in the creativity that comes with piecing an outfit together, and often this individuality isn’t found amongst the wealthy socialites that are the staples of so many street style blogs, but rather in the outfits of oblivious passers by. His subjects aren’t the only ones who are oblivious. Cunningham once photographed Greta Garbo completely unknowingly, so absorbed was he by the nutria coat she wore. “I’m not interested in celebrities, with their free dresses,” he explains. “I’m interested in clothes.” 

Cunningham is the creator of the cultishly successful double-page spread for The New York Times ‘On the Street’ section, where he quietly and cheerfully notes the recent fashion trends he is spying on the streets of Manhattan: “The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been and always will be.” 

Now, Richard Press’ documentary, Bill Cunningham New York finally allows us to catch a glimpse into the life of this maverick. The film follows Cunningham, now 82, as he peddles around Manhattan on his bicycle, snapping stylish bystanders on its streets. We also meet those who Bill has photographed and inspired. Example? Anna Wintour: “We all get dressed for Bill…” she pointedly remarks. “It's one snap, two snaps or he ignores you – which is death!” Another memorable moment in the movie is when Bill casually bumps into best pal Michael Kors, which is "no big deal", because Cunningham has developed a unique relationship with the fashion world; he was the only photographer granted an invitation to millionaire philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor’s 100th birthday party.

Cunningham is a man shrouded in relative mystery, and it’s a noteworthy achievement that the film begins to break down this barrier and bring us the real Bill. It's this likeability and, at the same time, enigma that makes Bill Cunningham New York so enjoyable and easy to watch. We’re given insight into his early story, we see his work progress and the admirers he acquires. We are even given a tour of the chaotic nest that is his apartment, crammed with filing cabinets of negatives in lieu of a kitchen, bathroom or even television. 

Cunningham is the perfect example of no-fuss professionalism; he refuses to accept even just a glass of water or canapé as he photographs an event, his favourite meal is a three-dollar sausage and egg sandwich, he’s most comfortable in his twenty-dollar plastic poncho and cheerfully admits to having had twenty-eight bicycles stolen from him in New York City without sounding remotely jaded. By the final scenes of this film, where the most crucial and probing questions are asked, you'll be straining your ears for the answer to the question: who actually is Bill Cunningham?

The production of the film itself has steered clear of documentary-film clichés; we experience no voiceover, narrator or interviewer. Instead, candid shots, interviews with friends, colleagues and with the man himself are pieced together to create the story of one of the first ever street-style photographers. Those without any interest in fashion will appreciate this film just as much as dedicated fashion fans; it is an insightful and poignant look into the life of a legendary creative figure, whose work has marked "a turning point for the Times" (so says editor Arthur Gelb) and has set the standard for a very modern media. And who can resist the man Anna Wintour can’t stand to be ignored by?

Watch the trailer for Bill Cunningham New York here. Thanks to Paul Kessel and Lorenzo Diggins for the images provided.