The best documentaries are the ones that leave you feeling like you've had a religious experience - that you've either just encountered a holy person or experienced a conversion to some new cause or idea that had been previously unexplored. The best documentaries transcend the subject matter and touch another place altogether - that spiritual place. And so it is with Bill Cunningham New York, a delightful documentary directed by Richard Press about the octogenarian New York Times photojournalist who comes across as a monastic figure whose sanctuary is couture.
Prior to seeing the picture, I didn't know Bill Cunningham's work, but being a longtime reader of the New York Times, I was aware of his street photos, which have been a regular feature in the Style section for over thirty years, and the tension between ubiquity (he's a respected sage in the fashion industry) and anonymity (he's a discreet man who shuns the spotlight and money in order to enjoy guiltless freedom in what he does) is at the core of the movie and the man.
Cunningham was born and raised in Boston, and retains the distinctive accent where Central Park becomes Central Pahk. After dropping out of Harvard, he moved to New York, where an uncle who worked for Bonwit Teller, the high-end department store, took him in and got him a job as a stock boy. Cunningham's interest in fashion worried his family, who no-doubt feared that he was gay. Finally, tiring of his family's pressure to get a "straight" job, Cunningham moved out of his uncle's place in 1949 and found an empty space on East 52nd street where he set up a hat shop and designed under the name William J.
After a hitch in the army, Cunningham came back to New York where he began his career in journalism. He got on with Women's Wear Daily, and was given carte blanche to write about whatever interested him. When WWD wouldn't publish a piece he'd written about Courreges, the French designer, he quit.
In the 60's, Cunningham worked for the Chicago Tribune in their New York office. In 1966, he met a photographer named David Montgomery. When Cunningham expressed an interest in taking pictures, Montgomery gave him an Olympus Pen-D half frame camera and told him to use it like a notebook. Thus equipped, he entered a new phase of his career.
Cunningham took Montgomery's advice to heart, and it was during this time, as he was getting acquainted with the camera, that he had an epiphany. He wrote about this moment in a 2002 piece for the Times - "I realized that you didn't know anything unless you photographed the shows and the street, to see how people interpreted what designers hoped they would buy. I realized that the street was the missing ingredient." That realization, that the street was where fashion was worked out, led to an obsession with the streets of Manhattan, which became a kind of laboratory for Cunningham, who documented the daily fashion experiments, looking for patterns.
In the 70's, Cunningham started taking photographs for the Times, but it wasn't until 1978 - after a chance encounter with Greta Garbo and a nutria coat she was wearing - that he landed his current gig, covering the streets and the galas and the shows - the Bill Cunningham holy trinity of fashion.
Bill Cunningham New York is a mixture of talking head interviews, decades old archival footage of Cunningham, and present day coverage of the man on his daily rounds. Amazingly, Cunningham - nearly 80 at the filming of the picture - still gets around Manhattan on his trademark bicycle, moving from street corner to street corner to capture a few frames of some article of clothing or an accessory that catches his eye.
The man who emerges from all of this attention is a purist completely uninterested in industry politics, self-promotion, or celebrity. For him, it's all about the clothes...of others. Cunningham lives a Spartan existence. His apartment is a tiny studio at Carnegie Hall that has no kitchen or bathroom (he showers and takes care of other business in a common bathroom in the hallway). He sleeps on a makeshift cot. The rest of the living space is occupied not with furniture and art, but filing cabinets filled with prints and negatives - his experiments.
Cunningham dresses conservatively, and could easily be mistaken for a retired professor or accountant but for his trademark blue smock. Some years ago, he stumbled across the smock - designed for institutional use - in a department store section devoted to uniforms. It's a light jacket that Cunningham favors for its many pockets (to hold film and other paraphernalia) and rugged construction (his camera, which dangles from his neck like a giant medallion, is hell on coats). It looks like something Chairman Mao might have favored.
Cunningham has stripped his life down to the essentials so that he can devote as much of himself as possible to the documentation of what people are wearing. He's that rare person who, early on, discovered his calling, and has let nothing distract him from it. Seeing him at Carnegie Hall Towers, once can't help but view him as a kind of secular monk and Carnegie Hall as his monastery. Cunningham and his elderly neighbors, nearly forgotten artists from the mid-twentieth century, are as delightfully anachronistic as an encounter with a Franciscan monk or the Amish.
The difference with Cunningham is that, though he may not be of the world, he's definitely in the world. We see him in the offices of the Times, playfully bantering with co-workers. We see him in Paris at a major show, where a young gate-keeper keeps in out on the sidewalk until an older co-worker pushes her aside, declaring Cunningham to be "the most important man on earth." We see him on the street, dialed in like method actor or ballplayer, looking for that thing.
Bill Cunningham New York has blown the cover of its subject, but his loss of anonymity is our great gain.
Scott Slucher is grateful to have grown up in a household with many books and almost no restrictions on TV viewing, the breeding ground for a pop culture obsession that is explored at http://www.slucherville.com/. These days, his scribbling is limited to a commentary of season 5 of Mad Men.