Notes on fashion, style and culture

Monday, 19 March 2012

In Search of Beauty – Bill Cunningham: New York

In Richard Press’s remarkable new documentary Bill Cunningham: New York we meet the eponymous snapper often cited as the father of street-style photography. Now well into his eighties Bill Cunningham still has the vigour and curiosity of someone just starting out on their career. In fact, Cunningham started snapping New Yorkers on the streets in the 1960s and began his famous column in the New York Times in the 1970s. Today, Bill Cunningham is responsible for the visuals in two weekly New York Times photo columns, On the Street – the current home for his street photography – and Evening Hours which documents the wealthy and fashionable at New York society gatherings. However, most of his photos, he claims, are never published. Cunningham says he uses his camera ‘like a pen. I use it to take notes.’ As the film progresses, it becomes apparent which of his two columns excites him the most.

Bill Cunningham
According to director Richard Press, the film – a ten year labour of love – was mostly taken up with the filmmakers getting their famously reclusive subject to agree to be followed around and filmed in the first place. (Persuading Cunningham to take part took eight years, while the filming and editing of the piece took two years.)

Bill Cunningham lives the simplest of lives, with minimal fuss. It is a monastic existence. He sleeps in the same room at his Carnegie Hall dwelling which doubles as his office. It is a tiny space with the walls crammed high with files and boxes of photographic negatives – the record of every picture he has taken in his 60 plus years of working. There is no TV, no kitchen and no bathroom (‘Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom?’ he responds when challenged on the matter). His single camp bed sits in the corner of the room, balanced on wooden crates.

Bill sat on his bed surrounded by his filing cabinets
His own dress is unfussy and utilitarian. He sticks to a uniform of plain trousers, collared shirts, and the same blue work-jacket favoured by Parisian dustbin men that he patches with duct tape when it rips. He has no lover. His tastes are simple. Like a monk, food is not a vice, ‘I eat with my eyes’, he claims. He goes to the same café where he snacks on the same $3 lunch. He is slim verging on skinny. He has no car. Instead he rides a pushbike all over the city – a classic Schwinn – his 29th as the previous 28 have all been stolen. He is also a deeply religious man who attends church every Sunday.

Bill Cunningham appears to hold little regard for wealth, power and vanity. He is also one of the most celebrated and innovative photographers the fashion world has ever known. As Bill himself points out, not because of the quality of his images – he does not consider himself the best photographer. His images are not the stylized airbrushed visual feasts so common among today’s fashion photographers. Instead Bill’s style and approach to his work has often been compared to that of a war photographer. It is simply about the clothes, the subject, and the moment in time at which they have been captured. There is an honesty and an aesthetic sense in his pictures which can only have been taken by someone with an eye for perfection.

Bill Cunningham at work
His devotion to his art is often described as religious. Minutes into the film we hold our breath as we see him running through oncoming traffic when he spies a great subject for a snap – oblivious to the danger to himself. (Bill has been in no less than ten bicycle crashes over the years). Later in the film, one of his frequent subjects and co-editor of Paper magazine, Kim Hastreiter makes the observation that ‘He’ll do anything for a shot. I’ve been in deep conversations with him and he’ll just run from me because he sees someone.’

There is something almost spiritual in his work and his pursuit for the subjects of his photographs. His interest in fashion appears to come from a place of purity – a genuine love of clothes and fashion. He has no interest in paparazzi-type photographs or celebrity. Nor does he have any interest in mocking his subjects or photographing the ridiculous or the badly dressed. To do so would be to drag himself and his work into a negative place. Bill's photography is all about celebrating clothes, and in turn, life. For him, fashion is ‘the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. To do away with it would be like doing away with civilization.’

To be chosen as one of his subjects is undoubtedly a matter of privilege in the fashion community – a badge of honour. If he doesn’t like what you’re wearing, or it holds no interest for him, he will simply just not photograph you. American Vogue editor, Anna Wintour famously declared: ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’  In the same interview, she amusingly comments that a snub from Bill delineates outfit suicide, ‘He’s been documenting me since I was a kid’, she comments, and then dramatically emphasizes, ‘it’s one snap two snaps, or he ignores you which is death.’

Anna Wintour by Bill Cunningham
One wonders how Bill remains so unaffected by the famously fickle and superficial world of fashion. He is undoubtedly ‘establishment’. At one point, we see him in a queue for a fashion show, being ignored as he attempts to negotiate his way past the doorperson. When the show’s publicist comes to the door to rescue Bill, he scolds the doorperson for keeping Bill outside with the rabble. ‘Please’ he says in all seriousness, ‘he is the most important person on Earth!’

As Bill is led inside, smiling through any awkwardness, he seems unconcerned at the fuss made of him by the publicist and at the snub by the person working the door. He soon busies himself by taking photographs, blending into the crowd, becoming invisible again. The film’s producer Philip Gefter, calls him ‘the most reluctant fashion deity on the planet.’

Bill Cunningham is a man of many contradictions. He is a man who has somehow kept his modesty and charm in a world dominated by the egotistical and narcissistic. He is at once knowing and naïve, a stickler for detail interested in the bigger picture. We see him haranguing a picture editor to change the layout of his latest feature – not for the first time it turns out. The editor responds by mock-strangling him. Both fastidious and easy-going, he is a true bohemian in a cut-throat industry.

Bill Cunningham at work in a blizzard
Harold Koda, curator of the costume institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, says Cunningham is ‘a true egalitarian. It’s not that he isn’t aware of cultural division and hierarchies but he treats it all the same.’ Bill’s camera does not lie. And he seems a man incapable of it. He is undoubtedly a man of integrity. ‘If you don’t take money,’ he smiles, ‘they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.’

For him, photography is ‘not work’, but ‘a pleasure’. In the latter part of the film, we see Bill go to Paris to receive the prestigious title Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. Bill is seen snapping away at the crowd – working even at his own party. When he gets up to make his speech, he speaks candidly and succinctly: ‘I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses,’ he declares, ‘ I’m interested in clothes.’  For Bill, ‘the best fashion show is on the street. Always has been, always will be.’

On the Street: New York Times
But Bill is more than a clothing enthusiast. For the subjects of his photographs, he looks for individuals with style and flair. ‘Exotic birds of paradise’ he calls them. ‘We're in the age of the cookie-cutter sameness. There are few that are rarities, someone who doesn’t look like 10 million others,’ he laments.

Indeed it is the subjects of his photographs that would appear to provide the colour in Bill’s life. New York dandy, Patrick McDonald, another of Bill’s frequent subjects, says ‘we’re all blank canvasses when we get up in the morning, and we paint ourselves.’ It appears to be that special marrying of the wearer with the right attitude in the right outfit that interests Cunningham. That certain something that you cannot put your finger on, but which marks someone out as truly stylish. The ability to put together an outfit and make it a reflection of you, rather than simply showcasing your wealth or the cloth you are wearing. Perhaps this is why Bill’s pictures always seem so fresh and significant.

Patrick McDonald by Bill Cunningham
Cunningham sees fashion in a different way from most people in the business. He does not seek out trends, or look for fashion disasters: he has a very pure connection to the unique beauty and originality which is found in an interesting outfit as it moves on its occupant down a New York street. ‘I don’t decide anything,’ he says. ‘I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is. You just don’t manufacture in your head that skirts at the knee are the thing, and you go out and photograph skirts at the knee... you’ve got to stay on the street and let the street tell you what it is. There’s no shortcuts. Believe me.’

Editta Sherman – ‘The Duchess of Carnegie Hall’
In his photographic quest Bill Cunningham has come to represent the timeless search for beauty in a changing city. One of the key aspects of the film is the passing of a piece of New York local history and colour – the gradual eviction of the artists and bohemians who, like Bill, have lived in apartments in Carnegie Hall. Their rent-controlled homes, now needed for offices, have been whittled down to two: Bill’s and his 98-year old friend, neighbour and fellow photographer Editta Sherman, who has been there since the mid 1940s. (Bill’s apartment was always by far the smallest).

At the end of the film we see Bill eventually relocated at the city’s expense to a more upscale apartment at Columbus Circle. Typically, he is uncomfortable with his new luxurious surroundings and has his new kitchen gutted to make space for his numerous filing cabinets.

Editta Sherman by Bill Cunningham
The most pivotal and heart-breaking segment comes when producer Philip Gefter questions Cunningham about his faith and personal life. To all intents and purposes he is an intensely private man. An enigma even to those closest to him, his friends and subjects profess to know little of him as a private person. Iris Apfel, a good friend claims: ‘I have the feeling that he doesn’t sit down and talk to people too much.’ Another friend and frequent subject over the years, Annette de la Renta, states: ‘I have no idea about his private life, I have no idea if he’s lonely.’

Iris Apfel – one of Bill's favourite muses
Cunningham’s replies to these deeply personal issues are surprising and profoundly moving. Ultimately, the film is a paean to a man whose enduring love affair has been with his work and with the strangers who continue to inhabit his photographs. After all it is they – in the form of the tens of thousands of negatives which fill his living space – who he lives and sleeps with.

Amongst all the glitz and glamour, the colour and the frills, it is Bill Cunningham who shines as the star of the film. Bill describes himself as boring and plain: ‘If we all went out looking like slobs like me,’ he jokes, ‘it would be a pretty dreary world.’ But to the viewer, the quirky bohemian ascetic with the disarmingly genuine nature comes out as the true visionary and artist.

Bill Cunningham
Richard Press’s film holds a mirror up to a rare vision of simplicity and beauty in a cynical and superficial world. As Bill himself says tearfully in his speech to pick up his French honour: ‘He who seeks beauty will find it.’ This remarkable film shows us a man unwaveringly true to his own spirit – even when it is at odds with the world in which he resides.

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