I had the good fortune of catching a screening of Bill Cunningham New York at the quaint Curzon Mayfair cinema this week. The documentary film tells the story of the life of legendary fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham who pioneered what we now know as street style photography and continues to contribute greatly to the world of fashion well into his eighth decade.
If you loved industry insider documentaries 'The Met Ball' or 'The September Issue' then this is definitely not one to miss; the tale of a true fashion legend, 'Bill Cunningham New York' offers insight into the lonely and closed-off world of this bicycyle-riding maverick, New York Times photographer and cultural anthropologist.
Getting his start as a milliner in Manhattan, Cunningham was soon drafted into the army and upon his return made his living as a columnist for WWD. It was not until the 1960's when he was given his first camera that he began to take photographs of stylish people he saw on the streets of New York. Bill admits that he is not a skilled photographer and views himself as more of a documentarian - he simply takes pictures of what he sees on the front lines of fashion.
What comes across most clearly about Cunningham is how incredibly pure and selfless he is in his pursuit of style, refusing to accept money or "even a glass of water" for his work for fear of losing objectivity, he is objective to the point of being removed completely. It is perhaps this outdated romanticism that makes him so utterly charming to the viewer. A remarkably sweet man whose unrelenting sunny disposition clearly touched the lives of all who have worked with him, interviews from fashion notables and New York legends such as Iris Apfel and Anna Wintour as well as downtown drag queens, round out this fascinating film. Everything you need to know about Cunningham's influence on fashion is perhaps best summed up by Wintour's famous quote, "we all get dressed for Bill."
The most heartwarming parts in this otherwise sad film are when the self-deprecating Cunningham receives well-deserved recognition for his contribution to fashion. For instance the octogenarian is shown waiting outside a fashion show brandishing his photographer's pass yet the young girl on the door takes no notice, when suddenly her superior pushes past her and grabs his arm to show him through scolding her with, "Please, he is the most important person on Earth." Not to mention his incredibly moving acceptance speech as he received the Legion D'Honneur from France in 2008 - I'm not scared to admit a few joyful tears rolled down my hardy cheeks.
An unbelievably dedicated individual, Cunningham spends his days riding his Schwinn bicycle around the streets of New York and his nights covering society parties for the New York Times - resolute in his convictions, the photographer maintains he only takes pictures of great style and never intentionally of a celebrity. Some prying on the part of the filmmaker towards the end of the film alludes to Cunningham's loneliness as he reflects on having dedicated his whole life to his pure pursuit and documentation of style in lieu of ever having had a romantic relationship with another person. It seems as though he was a product of his era, his devout Christian upbringing superseded his homosexuality and he channelled his passion obsessively into fashion - his tiny studio apartment in Carnegie hall is heart-wrenchingly piled high with nothing but filing cabinets which house every photograph he has ever taken, surely a candidate for the subject of an upcoming Met retrospective if ever I saw one?
I definitely recommend seeing the documentary as soon as possible, it really is the most utterly charming and refreshing film in the face of today's largely ugly, celebrity-oriented, money-driven industry. If you're looking for something to inspire and awaken true creativity then you can buy the DVD, which was released this week, here.
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