Bill Cunningham New York reviewed: a documentary portrait of the legendary, ascetic New York street photographer.

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March 18 2011 6:32 PM

Bill Cunningham New York

A documentary portrait of the legendary, ascetic New York street photographer.

Bill Cunningham NEW YORK. Click image to expand.
Bill Cunningham

Manhattan, it is well-known, is an island nation governed by peacocks. Trolling up and down the city's concrete channels, gazing into restaurants, you see a spread of lavish fabrics boldly worn, garments exotically blended, women gorgeously done-up and men dressed studiously down, each eyeing the other for a moment before rushing headlong back into the throng. For those who can't spend hours wide-eyed on a street corner every day, there is Bill Cunningham. The New York Times photographer shoots and curates the paper's "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" photo columns—weekly roundups of sidewalk and nightlife shots beloved by fashion doyens and people-watchers alike—and after more than three decades on the job, his visual chronicles have gained an avid, almost cultish following. This week brings the limited release of the first feature-length tribute, Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films), a documentary about the man and his city by director Richard Press. The movie takes us on a tour of Cunningham's eccentric life and stranger social circle, hewing closely, all the while, to its subject's style and ethic: Using the low-key approach that shapes Cunningham's column, Press works up a portrait that's as raw, gentle, funny, and—in the end—irresistible as the pictures themselves.

In this, he has ample help from his subject. The Bill Cunningham captured here is a puckish, eightysomething man with electric energy and a wish to devour all of New York through his camera lens. Aboard his bike, he weaves through lurching Midtown traffic with his left hand while occasionally snapping drive-by pictures with his right. (No helmet is involved.) On foot, he camps out on street corners to assess passing pedestrians, swaying toward passing dresses like someone keyed up for a game of Whac-A-Mole. Then, all at once and with a single swoop, he lunges, snaps, and melts back into urban anonymity. What's he hunting for? "Some marvelous, exotic bird of paradise," he coos, "meaning a very elegant and stunning woman or someone wearing something terrific." Back at the Times, Press' cameras find Cunninghamsurfing frantically on the back end of his deadlines, skipping meals, crossing out negatives, and trying to get his page just so. The curve of someone's hip should echo a draped garment one frame over. Bright colors on a dress should play counterpoint off a nearby coat. Cunningham started as a print journalist and retains a writer's sense of composition, a reporter's eye for news. His photo essays call out patterns, mark trends, and flow with soft humor, giving space to flamboyant characters or outlandish excesses. Where most fashion photographers strive for something like sartorial perfection, Cunningham delights in catching well-dressed people splashing messily through slush.

An irony shapes this pursuit, and Press' movie—one that's based in the gap between Cunningham's lush work and his weirdly ascetic life. Although he may be one of the few people alive capable of making Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour go all wobbly inside—"It's one snap, two snaps, or he ignores you, which is death," she exclaims—the photographer himself seems to own about five hangers of clothing (mostly blue), dines on the cheap (his favorite repast is a sausage-and-egg-sandwich special, $3), and is so detached from the glamorous events he covers that he'll refuse even water when he's on the job. The documentary's chief plot point is Cunningham's looming eviction from his tiny studio over Carnegie Hall, a space where he has dwelled for decades. It has no private bathroom or kitchen. When he started taking pictures after hours for the nascent Details in the early '80s, he refused to be paid. When that magazine got bought by Condé Nast, he wouldn't cash his check. "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid!" he advises us at one point. "That's the key to the whole thing: Don't! Touch! Money!"

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Photographing money is something else: Part of the pleasure of this documentary is being shown not just Cunningham's working process but the world of power brokers, fashion mavens, and well-dressed eccentrics transformed by his camera over the years. It is a colorful bunch. In one interview, Patrick McDonald, aka "the Dandy," explains why he always covers his face while changing hats; in another, Iris Apfel, better known as that lady with the glasses, lovingly strokes a stuffed animal seated on the couch beside her. We meet Editta Sherman, photographer to the stars and fellow Carnegie Hall evictee. (Editta is a self-taught ballerina, too, and in one lick of footage needlessly but irresistibly spliced into the film, we see her performing the dance of the swan from Carnival of the Animals, a thing she liked to do for guests whenever there was a full moon.) Cunningham was the only press photographer invited to Brooke Astor's 100th birthday, and yet he also mingles his camera with kids clubbing downtown or garment workers picketing in Midtown. By his own account, he doesn't care about famous people, many of whom he doesn't recognize—he has no TV—just their clothes. He comes across as someone who has found his way into the stuffy center of the palace chasing butterflies.

The hidden subject of Bill Cunningham New York is the space between the fashion industry and fashion as it's worn and loved by real people. Cunningham spans the gap between the two, and so, deftly, does Press. Shot with noninvasive consumer cameras and no crew over months, then winnowed, the director's approach is a direct echo of Cunningham's—and his product shares the subject's upbeat, nonconfrontational style. The film's climax, when the neurotically private, self-effacing Cunningham is asked about his past experiences with sex and religion, is filmed on a diagonal, from a distance of a few feet. It's the least dramatic treatment that this crucial interview could possibly have and, as a consequence, the frankest, rawest moment of the documentary. Press seems to know what Cunningham knows, which is that the camera isn't so much a pen (or a sword) as an open ear, an instrument for picking up the moments of quiet greatness real people sometimes create for themselves. Or, as the photographer himself put it, tearing up as he received one of France's top honors in the arts, "It's as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it."

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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