Darting dangerously through New York City traffic on his Schwinn bicycle (his 29th; the first 28 were stolen), wearing his signature blue jacket, 82-year-old Bill Cunningham could pass as the world’s oldest paper boy. But instead of delivering The New York Times, Cunningham has been a staff photographer for decades. His work is showcased primarily in two popular Sunday columns: On the Street, which consists of candid photographs of people wearing clothes and outfits that catch Cunningham’s sharp eye, and Evening Hours, a more traditional photo spread documenting the city’s nightlife and philanthropic side.
Despite the longevity of his career and the popularity of his work — Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe are among his many famous fans — little has been known about Cunningham’s life until now. Filmmaker Richard Press spent eight years convincing the photographer to participate in a documentary about his life and work, and although he eventually agreed, the jaunty, invigorating documentary Bill Cunningham New York still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The bulk of the movie is spent in recounting the importance of Cunningham’s photography, his ability to blend in with equal ease at a black-tie affair at the Museum of Modern Art and a trendy Tribeca nightclub and his rigorous, inflexible work ethic (although he constantly attends lavish dinners and parties, he refuses to accept so much as a glass of water when he’s working).
Friends interviewed in the film admit they are not entirely sure where Cunningham came from: Details about the man’s personal life are not the film’s strong suit. A sequence in which he fights relocation in order to remain in his tiny rent-controlled studio in Carnegie Hall, where he had lived for years, gives us a welcome glimpse of him talking about something other than fashion and photography. Late in the film, when Press asks Cunningham two questions point-blank — “Have you ever had a romantic relationship in your entire life?” and “Is religion an important component in your life?” — his answers are illuminating not for what they reveal, exactly, but for how Cunningham handles them. Bill Cunningham New York shows us a man who not only derives great pleasure from devoting himself to his job but also, in the process, has helped shaped the greatest city in the world.
“I just tried to play a straight game, and in New York, that’s almost impossible,” Cunningham says late in the film. Maybe impossible for most people but not for him.
With: Bill Cunningham, Tom Wolfe, Anna Wintour, Annette de la Renta, Josef Arnold, Patrick Macdonald, Arthur Sulzberger.
Director: Richard Press.
Producer: Philp Gefter.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Running time: 84 minutes. Brief vulgar language. Plays Sept. 10-11 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.