Bill Cunningham New York
Directed by Richard Press Club, QFT, Belfast; Light House, Dublin, 84 min
THERE’S NO hyphen in the title: nor should there be.
It’s morning and, as ever, octogenarian snapper Bill Cunningham gets on his Schwinn bicycle and leaves his Carnegie Hall apartment to take candid pictures of bustling New Yorkers. “The best fashion is always on the street,” says the photographer in plum New England-speak. “Always has been; always will be.”
Cunningham’s photo essays, a rolling pictorial chronicle of vanguard street fashion and best- forgotten plaid, have enlivened the New York Times since the 1970s. The paper, which also runs his high society snaps, co-produced this warm portrait of an impish, eccentric urban anthropologist – and no wonder: Cunningham’s On the Street series is one of the big guns in the Times armoury.
Director Richard Press worked for 10 years on Bill Cunningham New York; eight of them were spent persuading his shy subject to get onboard. We learn that he fought in the war and, as a milliner in the 1950s, he made hats for Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe (neither of who, in his opinion, had “style”). He insists that he’s not a real photographer, just a guy who “seeks beauty” on the sidewalks.
Dressed in a tweed cap and utilitarian royal blue shirt, Bill is an unlikely ambassador for style: “Damn you, New Yorkers, you’re all so extravagant and wasteful”, he grins as he re-tapes the holes in his rain poncho.
But Cunningham does more than catch the peculiarities and excesses of the rag trade. When Vogue editor Anna Wintour says that “we all get dressed for Bill,” she really means “all”. His work coalesces into an impossibly romantic portrait of New York and New Yorkers, beating on against the current in impossible heels.