I first saw the Bill Cunningham New York documentary during my stay in the city for fashion week last year. I was captivated by the film, and on my return to London was surprised both by the lack of knowledge of it here, and the fact that it wasn’t already playing to packed houses across the country. But now it’s here! Selective screenings have already taken place at some of the UK’s more discerning art-house cinemas (like a sold out Barbican screening), but if you didn’t manage to catch it, the DVD is now available.
I tagged the film then as the must see film for fashion bloggers, and that link is still obvious. But the film and Bill Cunningham himself have a much wider resonance, in terms of offering insight into a unique life, and a singular vision pursued out of sheer love. It’s a cliché to describe New York, and Manhattan in particular, as a permanent film set, but something about the compact grid at the heart of the island lends itself to the camera in a way that tends to be diluted by London’s messy sprawl.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are interested in fashion, but if your film date is less so, it’s still unlikely they will remain untouched by the story. Lovers of New York, of history, and those with an interest in how photography communicates and documents our lived reality will all find something to cherish about this film. Achingly beautiful, it transcends the idea of a documentary about a fashion photographer; very moving at times, but always kept upbeat by Bill’s infectious sense of fun in what he does.
An ego-less, Zen-like character, Cunningham has been photographing what people wear in New York, and annually in Paris, since the 1940s. Living in a decrepit Quentin Crisp-esque single room in Carnegie Hall, Cunningham sets out every day on bicycle, clad in his iconic blue workwear jacket, to capture what people are wearing on the streets, whatever the weather. Although he is very much part of the establishment in some respects, on first name terms with the likes of Anna Wintour, Cunningham remains outside of the system to a great extent, his passion is to capture beauty, not the pursuit of wealth or status. Unspoken cameos by Mordechai Rubenstein and Scott Schuman set the film directly in the context of how fashion is currently consumed and communicated in our complex, connected media world, though Cunningham’s New York Times column remains central.
If I was to choose one moment from the film to share it would be that when on reluctantly accepting an award for his work, Cunningham fights back tears but comes out with the incredible line: “He who pursues beauty will find it”. And this film is certainly beautiful, capturing the spirit of New York old and new.
Colin is Menswear editor at LDNFashion.com and also founder of Sharpened Lead