Documentaries about the world of fashion have almost become a mini-genre. The September Issue, Valentino and Vidal Sassoon have surfaced recently, and Bill Cunningham New York now joins the club. But this engaging movie is a little bit different, because while Bill Cunningham has photographed celebrities of couture and high culture for the last 50 years, he remains defiantly outside that chic universe. That’s the contradiction explored by director Richard Press in his brisk, 84-minute film that is a love letter to Manhattan as well as to the eccentric shutterbug at the center of the action. Notables like Vogue editor Anna Wintour, author Tom Wolfe and New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. share their impressions of Cunningham without quite catching his original, elfin spirit.
Actually, it’s a bit unfair — or incomplete — to label Cunningham a fashion photographer. He has two columns for The New York Times. One, “Evening Hours,” chronicles the elegant parties and charity bashes frequented by the rich and famous. But in “On the Street,” Cunningham photographs ordinary New Yorkers as they race around the city. While fashion is one subject of these photographic essays — Wintour says that Cunningham often spots emerging fashion trends in his pictures — he is simply enthralled by the energy and diversity of people walking the streets.
Cunningham travels not by limo but on a bicycle, stopping frequently when an image strikes his eye. He comments in passing that he’s had 27 bicycles stolen, which may have encouraged his dedication to traveling light. And that credo applies to his living situation as well. For many years he lived in a studio apartment above Carnegie Hall, a crowded flat with little furniture apart from the filing cabinets where his work is stored. The film introduces us to other colorful denizens of Carnegie Hall, who were all threatened with eviction as the city sought to gentrify the building.
One of the fascinating dramas of the film is this battle to salvage a part of New York local color. (Cunningham eventually was relocated at the city’s expense to a more upscale apartment at Columbus Circle; he had the kitchen gutted and turned into an office for his filing cabinets.) But by far the most intriguing segment comes when producer Philip Gefter pries into Cunningham’s personal life. The 80-year-old bachelor never answers the question of whether he is gay, but he confesses matter-of-factly that he has never had a romantic relationship in his life. That revelation may startle some viewers, but the film is a touching tribute to a man whose enduring love affair has been with his work and with all the strangers who continue to pique his curiosity.
Opens: Wednesday, March 16 (Zeitgeist Films)
Director: Richard Press
Producer: Philip Gefter
Directors of photography: Tony Cenicola, Richard Press
Editors: Ryan Denmark, Barry Alexander Brown
No rating, 84 minutes