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When I went to see Bill Cunningham New York about the New York Times “On The Street” fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, I was expecting an art process movie. I’m really interested photography and in fashion, especially Cunningham’s “street’s eye view” of fashion, and as an artist I’m always interested in documentaries that show the artistic process. Bill Cunningham New York did end up being a little about fashion and photography and a little about art process, but mostly the film is about a guy and the bizarre contradictions in his life.
The movie follows Bill Cunningham as he rides the streets of New York on his Schwinn bicycle and photographs fashion on the street and at society events. We spend a lot of time with Bill’s smiling face talking about how he is opposed to money and that he photographs fashion for the love of it. In the process, we do get to see some fashions through Bill’s eyes, but it’s less about fashion than it is about style. Style and fashion are two entirely different things. Fashion is about things that are made as objects to be consumed. Style is how things are put together into a personal statement. Bill talks about what he sees on the fashion runway and how it’s adopted and worn on the street; he also enjoys documenting the reverse, how style on the street becomes adopted on the runway. He talks about his interest in “street fashion” as a response to the “guerilla” fashion tactics of 1960s counterculture. Cunningham likes to walk a populist line, even when he’s attending high society charity events and photographing thousand dollar shoes. He talks about the connection between high fashion and everyday people, and he adamantly insists that there is no hierarchy in fashion. For example, he talks about the bag ladies of New York as creating a revolutionary fashion statement, and he has whole columns in the New York Times that feature street rain gear, including the use of a black garbage bag as a raincoat which Bill calls a black rose. It’s interesting to see how Bill discovers, documents and compiles random moments of “style” that emerge on the streets and how he blurs the division between the high fashion runway and people pulling off style from their own creative impulse.
The parts of the movie where he puts his column together and we can see the trends he discovers on the street are fascinating process scenes. They include everything from Bill shooting on the streets, to his developing the film at a local camera shop, to him picking the shots and arranging them for the column. These scenes depict Bill as a no fringes working guy who keeps his photography “real” and grounded in everyday life of the streets. He doesn’t have some fancy high-tech darkroom. He develops his film at a corner shop. He doesn’t eat lunch at the latest trend restaurants. He gets cheap Chinese takeout, and eats it while he looks through negatives. These are the bulk of the “process” scenes, but they are short compared to the rest of the movie. I would have liked to see more cuts between Bill’s shooting and the end results (the photos). For example, in one scene he goes to Paris for Fashion Week. He talks about how he goes against the grain of popular fashion photography by sitting up close on the sidelines as opposed to in the rear facing front like the rest of the photographers. He explains that from his position he gets more dynamic results. We then watch Bill photograph the runway show, but the film never shows us any of the results. I found that to be a big unsatisfactory tease.
The most interesting part of the movie is witnessing the contradictions within Bill Cunningham himself. There is a real tension between his excessive happiness and his monkish lifestyle. There is a real sense that even though he spends all his days and nights out in the world of people documenting the world of fashion and style, he is a lonely and isolated man. There is also a strange tension between his documenting this seemingly superficial and excessive part of culture ? fashion- and his own minimalist life and refusal to participate in material culture. He lives in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall with no bathroom. He sleeps on a cot stacked on milk crates. He wears the same thing every day, yet he spends his life documenting the excessive material world of fashion. There are little moments that reveal an odd “conservative” and repressed tension inside of Bill, such as when he talks about being drafted in the military and how he goes to church every Sunday. His smile is almost always very big, but something inside him is forcing that smile.
The one moment when the filmmakers ask Bill about love and religion reveals how truly lonely and isolated he is. He talks about how he has never had any romantic interest in his life and states, “Why would I?” At that moment, even though his face is smiling, there is definitely a glimpse of loss, loneliness and an intense will to suppress feeling behind his eyes. That question is followed by one where the filmmakers ask Bill if he is a religious man. At that point, the smile disappears from Bill’s face, and he drops his head and retreats inside himself. He spends every Sunday at the Catholic Church and lives the life of a monk, yet he spends his life documenting fashion. In one scene when he is awarded a French cultural honor, Bill gives a speech where he says his work is not about the people at all but about the clothes. He supposedly has a populist approach to fashion, yet he basically says that people don’t count, even though everyone champions him as being sympathetic and compassionate. He has displaced all his human emotions, sexuality and human connection onto a surface part of human culture ? fashion. The man has never been laid, but he has photographed thousands of high heel shoes. He uses fashion as a substitute for human connection, yet he is immersed in the world of humans during most of his waking hours. There is something very “off” about this part of his personality, and that “offness” lurks tragically under his smile in the ghost of his loneliness and repression.
There is further tension between Bill’s adamant refusal to accept money for much of his work, living his monkish lifestyle and his documenting of the anti-monk and material world of fashion. I wanted to champion for him and say “Right on, Bill. Don’t give into money and how it makes everything dirty.” But there is something so sad and contradictory about him as he attends high society events and photographs gowns and shoes yet doesn’t eat the food and says he is sincerely just interested in the fashion. He clearly derives pleasure from being part of the high society he documents even as he overtly refuses to indulge in its excessive material culture. He is in the middle of money and excess yet refuses to engage personally with the culture. Rather, he maintains a barrier of documentarian and observer. It is an odd way of him to interact without interacting. In one scene, when the New York Times has a surprise birthday party for him, all the employees hold up smiling “Bill faces” on a stick. They sing a song about him and eat cake, and there is something about the scene that is so tragic and lonely ? that sea of cardboard smiles looking out across the newsroom. It comes off as just another office party for a lonely old man.
There is lots of face time with New York society queens such as Annette De La Renta and Iris Apfel. Everyone has nice things to say about Bill — that he is a genuine and kind soul and that he has an incredible eye for fashion –, yet they all admit that they don’t know much about him. One of the most fascinating talking heads in the film is photographer Editta Sherman. She is a fellow artist resident of Carnegie Hall. She, Bill and other artists who have lived in Carnegie Hall for over half a century are being faced with eviction because the owners of Carnegie Hall want to turn the artists’ spaces into office space for telemarketers and other Killers of Culture. Editta Sherman is a terrifically fun character who has photographed many “stars” including Andy Warhol. She displays her photo of Andy Warhol proudly in her apartment, but she doesn’t want the filmmakers to film it. In one fabulous scene, Editta talks about how she used to do a “black swan dance” during every full moon, and we get to see an actual film shot by Andy Warhol of Editta doing the dance. This is very fun and fabulous archival footage!
The plight of the artists in Carnegie Hall is a really critical element of the film as it documents a whole dying culture. As those artists are evicted and replaced by offices, copy machines, cubicles, fax machines and computers, we see the dying remnants of a New York that has become an endangered species. In fact, journalism of the kind that Bill Cunningham is part of is also an endangered species. Maybe the scene at the New York Times feels so sad and tragic because we understand that the New York Times, along with hundreds of other daily newspapers offered at newsstands and delivered to your doorstep, are also an endangered species.
At the end of the movie, as I got the final glimpses of Bill Cunningham’s smiling face and blue jacket, I was left feeling more sad than inspired, but I was also left thinking that this is a really interesting and complex documentary, much more so than if it was just a never-ending fashion love fest.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn, Avanti-Popolo, and the Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published a book of her art Mapping The Inside Out and is finishing a photo essay book on copper mining towns in Southern Arizona. Someday she’ll finish her memoir book about her teenage life on the streets in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com.