Photographer Bill Cunningham admits he is no artist. He is neither a commercial photographer like Bert Stern nor a documentarian such as Dorothea Lange. But what he does, he does well. Cunningham is a well-known photographer in the world of fashion but don’t pin that label him either. That’s not what he does. He emphatically says so himself. He says this though he has worked for Vogue, the original Details and currently works for The New York Times.
So what is it that Cunningham exactly shoots? Well, as we see in the film, he roams the streets of New York in his signature blue jacket, pedaling on a bicycle, photographing people, specifically what they are wearing. They could be the famous, the rich or just one of us everyday people. But just as he says he’s no fashion photographer, he is no paparazzo either. What fascinates Cunningham are clothes and how people wear them to express themselves. He roams Manhattan’s streets, markets as well as the city’s biggest and richest social events. He has no idea who most of the people are who he shoots, it doesn’t matter, even when they are some of the biggest celebrities. Their fame is not his interest. It’s about the clothes and the individuality of the wearers.
Cunningham lived for many years in a small cramped artist studio apartment in Carnegie Hall. You read correctly, the same Carnegie Hall, where artists as diverse as The Beatles, W.C. Handy, Yo Yo Ma, Judy Garland, Benny Goodman and Eubie Blake have all performed. He lived there up until a few years ago when greed won out. Cunningham and others, including photographer Editta Sherman, who also lived at Carnegie Hall for 60 years, (1) were evicted from the rent-controlled apartments.
The apartment was cramped with filing cabinets filled with a lifetime of negatives, photos (he still uses film ) along with a small bed. It not only was his office, it was where he lived. When Cunningham found a new place to live, he had the landlord remove the kitchen cabinets so he could put his filing cabinets in the kitchen. Cunningham’s life is all about his work, which he does everyday taking only Sunday mornings off to attend Mass which he does every week.
He has a philosophy of not accepting gifts or food at any of the many social events he works. That way, he is not beholden to anyone.
“If you don’t take gifts,” he says, “they can’t tell you what to do.”
Cunningham has the life many of us would like. A job he loves and the freedom to do that job as he pleases. It’s all so inspirational. That’s what makes this film so impressive and watchable. You don’t have to care about fashion or clothes, it’s not really about that. This is about a man, who also happens to seem like a real nice guy, who has been fortunate enough to live his life on his own terms. How many of us can say that?
- Editta Sherman died in 2013. She was 101 years old.
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Interesting article and a small world as my cousin and her husband live in Manhattan, dress in vintage clothing-20s-30s-40s and are also vintage dancers. They’ve been photographed several times by Mr. Cunningham and they’re friends of his! I sent your blog post to her. 🙂
That’s amazing, Jenni. The documentary is quite interesting and he does seem like a nice guy. Thanks for sharing.
This is such a beautiful film – funny and sad in equal measures. I’m so happy you wrote about it as I think more people need to be aware of Bill, who’s a rare, unaffected and unpretentious talent – something you don’t often find in fashion. The scene in the NYT office where he’s directing the digital designer over his shoulder made me laugh, equally the scene towards the end where Cunningham talks about himself almost broke my heart.
I am glad I found a kindred spirit with this film. The two scenes you mention are definite highlights reflecting two sides of this man. Like you, I wish this film would be better known and appreciated.