Last night I saw a film that I loved and I hope you will go see as soon as it officially opens. It was a special preview screening of the award-winning documentary "Bill Cunningham New York" put on by The Costume Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For years I have been reading Cunningham's columns for the New York Times: "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" that appear each Sunday in the Style section of the paper. Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and the New York Times would not be complete without reading these fabulous fashion features by photographer Cunningham. I loved this film because it is about fashion, New York, and Bill who is very much a maverick and a legendary figure in the New York fashion world.
As Anna Wintour says in the film, "We all get dressed for Bill," most fashion figures in New York hope to be featured in his columns, as well as everyday people on the street. He has been chronicling fashion for decades for the Times, featuring fashion trends and high society charity events, and his images and vision have established him as a cultural anthropologist. Wintour says "He has been documenting me since I was a kid, one snap, two snaps, or he ignores you which is death."
Anna Wintour, being interviewed about Cunningham for the film
Cunningham on the street
But one of the things that is so engaging about Bill is his egalitarian attitude toward his subjects. As one of the curators at the Metropolitan museum says, " That doesn't mean he is unaware of cultural vision and hierarchy. He just treats it all the same." He is not interested in the celebrities who get free clothes. He is more interested in the clothes, it's all about the clothes. He says "The best fashion show is definitely on the street... fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you can do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization."
When he is honored by an organization in France, he says in his acceptance speech, "He who seeks beauty is destined to find it." You get the feeling that this has been the driving philosophy of his life and his career. This is a man who has been seeking and finding beauty of all sorts his entire life. And his life is about his work. He is defined by it, lives and breathes it, and repeatedly tells his interviewer that he has no time left over for his personal life. The image of him cycling all around Manhattan with his camera and his blue shirt is an iconic image, he is a maverick and loves the streets of New York, teeming as they are with the tapestry of life. This is his subject.
I was moved by his story. He is beloved by the fashion world and I got the feeling that his family is the New York Times. He walks into a society event and everyone welcomes him, his sunny disposition and lack of pretension endears him to all. He won't eat or drink at these events, he is only there to work. As one of the magazine editors says, "Bill has never, never sold out, his fingerprints are all over everything he does." Bill himself say, "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do."
Go see this film. If you are like me, you will be moved by this story of a man who turned his passion into a successful career and became a legendary fashion photographer, with a style that is all his own. What an impact he has had on the fashion world!
Photos from billcunninghamnewyork.com