It’s a challenge to wrap your mind around the singular focus of Bill Cunningham. The longtime New York Times fashion photographer spends his days shooting everyday people on the streets of the city. He stands at intersections with his camera and scans the crowds to find interesting looks. A Schwinn bike (his 29th) is his main transportation around New York City. Bill is nearing 80, yet his manic energy is on a different pitch from much younger folks. Richard Press’ documentary Bill Cunningham New York paints a warm picture of such an original artist. Even fashion superstars like Anna Wintour marvel at Bill’s eye for the latest trends. He isn’t a normal guy, but it takes someone outside of the typical realms to do what he does.
A visit to Bill’s apartment reveals just how much the work dominates his life. His studio has no kitchen or private bathroom, and he sleeps on a thin mattress between large file cabinets. There’s a small loft filled with fashion books and almost no space to move. Cunningham lives at Carnegie Hall, where the resident artists are being pushed out for office space. It’s a sad comment on the evolution of New York City, but Bill hardly cares about home, food, or anything besides photography. He tours apartments near Central Park that most would love, but it does little for him. In a telling interview, Bill admits that he’s never had a romantic relationship. He’s so matter-of-fact about it that it’s hard to feel bad for the guy. Bill’s uncomfortable talking about his sexuality or any past flings; they’re a distraction from his photography.
The camera doesn’t get too close while Bill shoots in the New York streets. It’s clear that he isn’t that excited about this movie project. That humble demeanor fits with his approach to photography. Bill arrives at fancy charity events in a blue jacket and sticks out among the socialites. Even so, he seems very comfortable mingling with actors, politicians, and other powerful figures. Richard Press shows the contradiction between a guy with no vanity and the circles where he travels. There’s no easy explanation for how Bill ticks, and that makes this documentary so engaging. Despite his grumbling sessions with Art Director John Kurdewan while laying out the photos, Bill’s an endearing guy who loves his work. His one-track mind shuts out other parts of his life, but it also leads to creative success.
Bill Cunningham New York is currently streaming on Netflix in both Canada and the U.S.