Pictures at an exhibition
Bill Cunningham New York
The very title of Richard Press’ documentary Bill Cunningham New York is emblematic in its simplicity. It’s not Bill Cunningham of New York or in New York, or Bill Cunningham’s New York, or even Bill Cunningham, New York with a comma. No, it’s just those four words, two names, straightforwardly side by side as if they were frankly inseparable.
New York photographer Bill Cunningham is one of those celebrities of whom you may never have heard, a celebrity because some of the people who have heard of him are celebrities themselves. As recounted by Press, the octogenarian Cunningham divides his life more or less evenly among three activities: 1) photographing haute couture fashion shows in New York and Paris, 2) photographing New York high-society charity functions and benefit soirees and 3) photographing ordinary New Yorkers in Manhattan for his weekly On the Street column, a fixture of The New York Times since the late 1970s. The first two, Press suggests, are Cunningham’s bread and butter, while the third, documenting life on the street, is his passion; Cunningham admits that by far the majority of his millions of pictures have never been published.
We can assume that Cunningham manages to squeeze in a bit of eating and sleeping from time to time, but the movie gives the impression that those aren’t high priorities. For most of the two years Press and his cameras followed him around, Cunningham lived in a studio apartment at Carnegie Hall furnished mainly with filing cabinets crammed with his half-century of photos. His bed was a simple cot stretched across a row of boxes. The bathroom was down the hall. There was no kitchen. (Toward the end of filming, Carnegie management evicted Cunningham, along with the other remaining tenants who had lived longer than Carnegie Hall found convenient, and relocated to another apartment overlooking Central Park. The first thing he did was to have the new landlords remove the kitchen appliances to make room for some of his files.)
Cunningham tools around Manhattan from gig to gig on his bicycle (his 29th, he says; the first 28 were stolen), or simply stands on the sidewalk snapping passersby, flashing his ever-present grin whether they pose for him, ignore him or bark at him not to take their picture or they’ll break his fuckin’ camera. Press intersperses these scenes with comments from Cunningham’s acquaintances, some of them people whom he has photographed because they’re famous—Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, the late Brooke Astor—and others who are famous because he has photographed them, like Manhattan dandy Patrick McDonald and former Nepalese diplomat Shail Upadhya.
Bill Cunningham is a specimen that seems to be unique to New York, a celebrity whom “everybody who is anybody” is acquainted with, but nobody knows. We get snippets of biography like his 1950s stint in the army where, stationed in France, he first encountered the French fashion scene; or his brief tenure at Women’s Wear Daily, quitting over that journal’s condescension to the hoi polloi of New York that he believes are the real lifeblood of fashion. But ultimately, knowing “the real” Bill Cunningham seems impossible; Press spends a central sequence of his movie on a montage of his commentators saying variations on “I really don’t know anything about him. I don’t think anybody does.”
Later on, Press tries. He hesitantly asks Cunningham if he’s ever had a “romantic relationship” in his life.
Cunningham laughs. “Now do you want to know if I’m gay?”
“Well … yes.”
Cunningham chooses to avoid the second question by answering the first. No, he’s never had any kind of romance. Never had time. As for whether or not he’s gay—well, that’s probably why his family opposed his interest in the fashion industry, but they never said anything about that. People didn’t, in those days.
Cunningham’s friendly smile never falters, but he’s clearly more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. Press winds up with a shot of him at his desk saying, “I just try to play a straight game, and in New York that’s almost impossible. … Shut up, Cunningham, and let’s get this thing on the road. Get up and work. All right, turn off the cameras, we’ve had enough of this.”