On the Street
A Man Seeking (and Finding) Beauty
First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films
Bill Cunningham had 83 photographs in the New York Times last Sunday alone. He took 40 of them on the street, where he spends days chasing dresses, jackets, hats, handbags, gloves, sunglasses, shoes. The other 43 pictures were taken at swank evening benefits. Squeezing between tables with one hand on the camera around his neck (film, not digital), he air-kisses but never takes a snack or drink, "not even a glass of water." It is a point of pride. He does not ride the subway or in a limousine. He uses his bicycle. (Occasionally he crashes awkwardly into a cab.) He has been doing this—his home life is nothing but a kitchenless-and-bathroomless studio at Carnegie Hall packed with file cabinets full of photo negatives (his shirts hang on the cabinet drawer pulls)—for as long as anyone can remember. He's over 80. I am extremely happy somebody made a movie about him.
The movie, by Richard Press, is called simply Bill Cunningham New York. It might not have happened—Cunningham is not an important photographer in any regularly recognized way: art, war, poster, coffee-table-book. He is a documentarian of how humans decorate themselves. He does it on his own terms, refusing to take a cruel picture or edit body types or social castes. "He means so much to people like us," says genderqueer promoter/artist Kenny Kenny, whose picture the New York Times refused to print for years, until Cunningham's continued insistence wore the paper down. Cunningham's vision sounds uncomplicated, but it leaves room for a whole universe of transcendent fashion: "A lot of people have taste," he says, "but they don't have the daring to be creative."
The camera cuts to one of Cunningham's favorite subjects, the United Nations diplomat from Nepal, who stands with perfectly stiff posture to display his outlandish outfits one after the next in what adds up to a pretty great comedy sequence. "I've said many times that we always get dressed for Bill," says Vogue's Anna Wintour. But Cunningham is not part of any world besides his own. If he runs across a celebrity, he won't pick up the camera around his neck unless she's wearing something interesting. "I'm not interested in the celebrities, in their free dresses," he gently scoffs. That's as close to scoffing as he gets, anyway.
But Cunningham's not just a kindly, adorable character. He's also a man gracefully suppressing certain lifelong pains and lonelinesses, which the director exposes in an unexpected climactic scene that'll make you cry. By this point, it's painful to think of anything hurting this man. "It's as true today as it ever was," he said as he broke down while accepting the French Order of Arts and Letters award in 2008. "He who seeks beauty will find it."
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