Bill Cunningham might be "the hardest working reporter in New York," says the NYT Lens blog. I came to the same conclusion while watching the documentary on the street-fashion photographer last week in Manhattan. Cunninghman's life is devoted to his work, capturing what people are wearing on the streets of New York, and in the process, documenting a society's vivacious sense-of-self through its clothes.
He knows perfectly well what he's doing, and how important it is.
In the film, Cunninghman is depicted as living a monastic life that revolves entirely around his weekly features in The New York Times, "Evening Hours" and the addictive "On the Street" (my favorite piece of journalism in the entire paper). He lives in a cramped space in the Carnegie Hall studios, with no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall, and eats cheap. He is an 80-something with attends church every Sunday and admits in the film, in a tough moment, that he's never had a "romantic relationship" in his life. In some ways, he's a lot of like Enrique Metinides.
Cunningham started out as a hat designer in the 1950s after the war, then spent years shooting (and comparing) runway shows and street looks for Women's Wear Daily and the original Details. His ethic and moral compass are unwavering: when WWD used his photos to mock the women appearing in them, against his wishes, Bill quit the magazine and never looked back. Through the decades, he's followed his sidewalk muses -- such as a former U.N. official for Nepal who dresses in flamboyant suits -- and has charted not only chic women's fashion but also the rise of men's hip-hop wear. He made an "On the Street" on baggy jeans (in 1997) and one asking "How low will they go?"
The documentary "Bill Cunningham New York" is directed by Richard Press. Press is an unobtrustive presence, capturing Cunningham in total silence in solitary and seemingly unimportant moments, such as shots of the photographer quietly locking or unlocking his studio door. Press uses thrilling archival footage and photographs to present the history of the pulsating tradition of New York streetwear, through the eyes of its most faithful watchman.
"The point is," the photographer says, "fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life."
* Previously, "Bill Cunningham hat-tips the summertime fedora."