Bill Cunningham New York Review

A superb documentary on an iconic photographer whose subjects are New Yorkers simply walking down the street

While the name Bill Cunningham might not register with a wide swath of people, he’s absolutely revered in certain sectors of New York City and Paris and wherever else fashion dominates. Indeed, at one point in Richard Press’ documentary on Cunningham, the octogenarian photographer is whisked from a press line in Paris during Fashion Week as one staffer admonishes another by curtly proclaiming him to be the “most important person in the world.” Pretty amazing for a guy who rides around Manhattan on a Schwinn bicycle wearing a royal blue smock over his clothes. He spends his days strolling around the city with a film camera hanging from his neck, taking pictures of strangers and familiar faces alike. But Cunningham isn’t simply an eccentric. For years now, his photographs of New Yorkers have been compiled weekly in the Sunday New York Times, in a section called “On the Street” that showcases a particular theme, often a color or pattern, common to the subjects’ clothing. A second area of the paper also features Cunningham’s work, though the photos there are taken from social functions and frequently include the city’s elite rather than regular passersby.

Bill Cunningham New York outwardly takes the approach of shadowing its protagonist – at work on the street, in his office at the Times and even to Paris – but manages to subtly gather a great deal of complexity and insight in the process. These lessons come through multiple sources, though all are ultimately built in some way around Cunningham. For instance, here is a man who’s devoted his entire life to capturing images of clothes and fashion yet has no closet and wears remarkably simple, practical and cheap clothing. For years he’s photographed the rich and well-to-do, building up cordial relationships with people like Brooke Astor and Anna Wintour, while going home to a modest studio apartment located in Carnegie Hall. Cunningham’s spartan existence allows for no interest in outside entertainment, personal relationships or even food beyond what is necessary to support his thin frame. He is completely committed to his work despite not necessarily matching those interests in his everyday behavior. Bill Cunningham accepts and relishes his role as a chronicler of others, particularly their clothes, and he’s achieved a sterling reputation for this.

The impact of Cunningham’s eye on the fashion industry is heavily celebrated in the film. Interviewees, including Wintour, Tom Wolfe, and a number of locals attuned to the New York social scene, paint him as an important barometer for translating what works on the runway into what’s good for the sidewalk. Just by seeing the models Cunningham chooses to photograph at a fashion show, regardless of what actually appears in print, designers get an insight into whether their clothes work, at least on whatever level they’re being judged at that moment. Thus, the influence Cunningham has is rather astounding. That’s not to say it’s in any way undeserved or unearned. He’s shown as being obsessed with his work and, in turn, clothes. There’s no interest there in celebrity or wealth. He’s instead drawn to items of clothing that stand out. Some humor is introduced in the documentary via a former diplomat who has quite flamboyant taste in how he dresses. He carries around the multiple clippings of when he’s appeared in Cunningham’s Times column like a badge of honor, even commenting that they will be something to one day show his grandchildren.

The film thankfully extends past just fashion to also include, or at least attempt, a look at Cunningham beyond his camera. When those interviewed, people who’ve known him for decades, are asked about Cunningham’s background or life away from work they know very little. An intriguing subplot emerges when it’s learned that the tiny rent-controlled apartment Cunningham has spent decades living in is essentially evicting him. The particulars are not quite disclosed but newer tenants of the Carnegie Hall building are shown to be, for example, telemarketers instead of the artists that once frequented the premises. (Another 2010 documentary, Lost Bohemia, directed by Josef Astor, delves deeper into this situation and also features Cunningham.) A scene late in the film finds our subject being shown other apartments to potentially move to, but the slick modernity seen lacks the charm that the Carnegie studio has. The realtor tries to sell him on the dine-in kitchen, to which Cunningham remarks that he’s never dined in his apartment in his life.

Though Bill Cunningham New York has the feel of an ode to so much of what makes the New York City area unique, even becoming slightly reminiscent of Grey Gardens at times, its appeal is also not limited to geography. Bill Cunningham is a true character, perhaps enabled by the realities and opportunities of where he lives but still interesting on a deeply human level. His contradictions and talents, and the way Press displays them in his documentary, stay with us well beyond the short running time of the film. The passion seen in Cunningham is as bewildering as it is infectious, but there’s great comfort in knowing people like him exist and even excel in their own way. He’s genuine, he’s likable, and this small window into his world allows for a fascinating experience.

The Disc

Bill Cunningham New York is released on R1 DVD from Zeitgeist Films. The dual-layered disc is packaged in an elegant digipak case.

The progressive transfer protects the very natural look of the documentary, with available lighting dictating much of its appearance from scene to scene. Outdoor shots of Cunningham on New York streets during the day exhibit pleasing levels of detail and brightness while interiors and nighttime footage understandably appear less defined. The filmmakers used only small, handheld consumer cameras for these sequences so some degree of visual modesty can be implied. Sit-down interviews also look satisfactory. Any digital manipulation in the transfer seems to be at a minimum. It’s presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions.

Audio is likewise more than acceptable. Musical cues and the like sound excellent while audio from interviews generally presents no issues of clarity. Zeitgeist has included both 5.1 surround and stereo options, in English, though the differences are noticeable mainly through the music and perhaps some increased dimension for various street sounds. Listening to the stereo track shouldn’t really lessen the experience by much. Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are offered. Also subtitled, automatically, are instances like when Cunningham speaks in French while accepting an award.

Lots of good material that didn’t make it into the final film can be found on the disc in the Additional Scenes (18:23) section, including how a photograph of Greta Garbo was responsible for Cunningham’s first “On the Street” column and the uniqueness of his reliance on film instead of digital. There are a dozen different clips that can be played separately or using a “Play All” function. The original theatrical trailer (2:05) is also here.

Inside the digipak is a nice 12-page booklet that includes a Director’s Statement from Richard Press. It’s instructive on how he was able to make the film, and serves as a fine alternative to an interview on the disc. There are a couple of examples of the “On the Street” feature from the New York Times in the booklet as well, plus credits for the film and DVD.

clydefro jones

Updated: Sep 07, 2011

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