Bill Cunningham New York is a picture of a man acutely attune to the atmosphere around him on the streets of New York, but reluctant to consider the world that immediately surrounds himself. The iconic street-fashion photographer has been prowling the city’s streets for decades, snapping New York’s finest with compulsive verve. “He’s like a war photographer. He’ll do anything to get the shot.”
First-time director Richard Press takes on the challenge of documenting a man with an obsession for documentation that seems to rival a Darwinian level. Press needs first to be congratulated on the very feat of convincing Cunningham to agree to this documentary, a battle that reportedly took eight years to win. When he’s not furiously cycling the streets, he lives an illusive, absurdly ascetic existence. At the time of filming, he was one of the last remaining tenants of the once-vibrant, artistic haunt, Carnegie Hall, which sadly has since evicted its residents to make room for office-cubicles and telemarketers. Little is known about Cunningham’s personal life, even the interview subjects of the documentary- people who he has worked closely with for years- seem mystified as to what Bill does when he isn’t out on the streets, the bright blue blur of his distinctive workers smock whizzing past, camera slung around neck, and on rainy days shielded by a taped-together poncho.We learn he lives a strange dichotomy, being at once repulsed by wealth, yet compelled by the extravagant and elegant clothes of the wealthy. Notorious for refusing to be paid for his photographs, neither will he accept any food-or even a glass of water- at the high-class events where he documents girls dripping with diamonds, men with angular cheekbones, and some of the richest aristocrats of the city.
Instead, he much prefers a $2.50 sausage-and-egg sandwich at his local burger joint, before cycling home, tucking his bicycle into the lobby closet, and trudging up to his apartment; here he sleeps amongst a nest of filing cabinets stuffed with reams of negatives.
He is renowned for the kind-hearted treatment of his subjects, even when his photographic efforts are occasionally met with the odd “Don’t take pictures of us! I’ll come over there and break that f*cking camera!” But this he doesn’t take personally, just chuckles and cycles off. “Oh kids” he shakes his head, bemusedly.
Press has achieved this same kind of gentle treatment regarding Cunningham himself, and has echoed his raw style; camerawork is imperfect, allowing the subject’s energy to carry the scene, even if it is with a certain reluctance.
A painful moment occurs when the filmmakers dare to gently probe Bill about the sensitive issues of religion and sexuality. Huddled at the edge of the frame in his cramped apartment, we glimpse a moment of intense sadness, a flicker in the cheerfulness he projects street-wards.
Several times throughout the film he laments to the camera, “There’s no time!” “There’s just no time!” suggesting that he’d much rather maintain this routine of racing from social event to benefit dinner to lavish soiree, than to stop, slow down, and think anything about himself. Bill’s life is a collection of fleeting fragments, captured by the click-snap of a camera shutter and systematically catalogued securely away in a filing cabinet along with every other photo he’s ever taken. It’s hard not to be charmed by this documentary- and this man- and to be glad someone took the time to make it.