April 29, 2011


This is another return from the NZ International Film Festival last year, and I'm glad it came back. I missed it last year (too many films to see, this was relatively far down my list) but I'm rather pleased I saw it. A documentary on fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, this is a portrait of the artist, and through him a portrait of New York and fashion. 

But really, to call Bill Cunningham merely a "fashion photographer" barely does the man justice. Yes, his main subject is fashion but it's the way he captures what he captures that makes him so unique. Bill Cunningham is distinctly old school in his approach - he has a focus and he doesn't deviate from that. He photographs relentlessly: out on the streets capturing the fashions of New Yorkers, at society galas, at runway shows, in New York, in Paris... this is what he does. And the man himself if so egalitarian, humble and kind hearted. As many people attest to throughout the film, Bill never shows a bad picture of someone.

While the film of course focuses on Cunnningham now (who, nearing 80 years old still bikes around the city of NY!) there is some delving into his past, and how he got to be where he is. Most of the people interviewed (usually subjects of Cunningham's photography) have no idea about his life outside of the photos. Which, I think, suits Cunningham rather finely. His life is his photos. He does not seem to have, or want, much in the way of money. In fact, he seems to view it as grubby, tarnishing. So much so, he won't even have any food or drink at the society galas he photographs. And he is so devoted to doing what he does, he has little to no time for anything else. Except church every Sunday. This is one of the few instances where the director, Richard Press, makes his presence explicitly known and actually interviews Cunningham. Press questions Cunningham on his relationships, trying to subtly ask if, well, if Cunningham is gay. This, unsurprisingly, leads to one of the more emotional moments in the film. Possibly even more so than Cunningham being surprised at work for his 80th, or being inducted as an Officier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. 

To think that there are still people out there in the world like Bill Cunningham can't help but make you happy. As the world changes around him, becoming more commercialised with everything and everyone chasing moneymoneymoney, Bill just keeps on doing what he does. The best example is that of Carnegie Hall, where Bill was living cramped into a tiny artist's apartment. He, and others like him, were happy there. They'd been there for years and many people had come and gone, using these spaces available to artists. However, the Hall management decided to boot everyone out and turn the space into telemarketer cubicles. But Bill never compromises his values. He does things his way. He's a character, full of life and humour who bikes around in a cheap blue smock all the while snapping away. And if you think he may be a bit lonely, never having time for relationships, I think that in his own way he's really rather happy. And, also in his own way, he's something of an inspiration.

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