in recent years, street style photography has experienced an explosion of popularity via the internet. while photographers like scott schuman (the sartorialist) and tommy ton (jak & jil) have rightful claims in this recent virtual expansion, one new yorker has been doing it for decades before the internet was even invented-- his name is bill cunningham.
most new yorkers haven't the slightest clue who mr. cunningham is-- but this is what makes him extraordinary. bill cunningham has been the "on the street" photographer for the new york times for over four decades, snapping photographs on the street of people he considers fashionable. he democratizes what it means to be "stylish", letting not the trends on the runways but the trends seen on the streets of new york tell their own story.
bill has long been a mystery to both friends and the public, with this, film director richard press set out to shed light on the street photographer with his documentary, bill cunningham new york that we were lucky enough to catch last week during its two week run at film forum in the west willage.
More of the review after the jump...
the film follows Bill through his routines and process whether it be bill duct taping his ripped, two dollar, plastic poncho (because it's still good) or the photographer at the legendary brooke astor's birthday party. the film does an exceptional job capturing the essence of a man that is beyond dear to many, whether it be groups of cross-dressers who flock to him during events or anna wintour who explains, "we all get dressed for bill."
with an illustrious fan base of fashion industry giants, bill has never found interest in pursuing fame and fortune. in fact, his lifestyle is perhaps a living definition of humble. at the time of filming bill was living in the artist studios at carnegie hall, only one of two people that were allowed to stay after all other residents had been evicted (he has since been re-located). his studio was filled from wall to wall with filing cabinets, all archiving every picture he has ever taken.
bill cunningham's humility is the driving force behind his legend. bill is a man who wears no designer labels, eats three dollar deli breakfasts and lives amongst a forest of filing cabinets yet has been honored by the french ministry of culture. he photographs the most prestigious galas and runway shows, rubs elbows with new york's highest social circle, but arrives on a schwinn bicycle. but he does it just to photograph an outfit that he finds exciting. for the photographer, his 50 year career has always been just about the clothes. he has never made it a point to photograph anyone because of their celebrity and that's why he loves the streets of new york-- a place where fashion is alive and ready to be captured by his camera. bill never sets out looking for something specific.
the film is incredibly funny, bill being quite the unintentional comedian. but, at the end it touches upon something more serious--his past and his personal life. bill has always remained an enigma to everyone, even close friend, paper magazine editor-in-chief, kim hastreiter admitted during the film that she in fact knew absolutely nothing about his past. In a very uncomfortable and unexpected moment bill begins to weep after being asked if he "had ever been in a romantic relationship", why he weeps, we'll never know but within minutes he was laughing once again. richard press ingeniously takes us to the end of the film with this scene assuring us that bill cunningham will always remain a mystery.
bill cunningham new york will live amongst the greatest fashion documentaries for its sheer honesty about a man who just loves clothes, photographs and absolutely nothing more.