“I just try to document what I see.” – Bill Cunningham
Since the 1970s, Bill Cunningham’s photographs have appeared in the ‘On the Street’ and ‘Evening Hours’ sections of the New York Times. Cunningham may seem like an unlikely subject for a documentary feature as, in his own words, the octogenarian photographer dresses like a “slob” in blue Parisian street cleaner jackets, and eats at cheap diners that serve cheap coffee. During the day Cunningham rides around New York City on a vintage Schwinn bike (his 29th, the others were stolen), to document the people, fashion, and daily events of the city. At night, he attends charity functions where he photographs the city’s elite as they lend their names and money to various charity causes.
Richard Press documents Cunningham’s life and work using a variety of footage and documentary techniques. He interviews some of Cunningham’s associates (it is unclear if Cunningham really has any close friends), films Cunningham – cinéma verite style – on the street taking photos, and includes archive footage of Cunningham interviewed and at work in the late 1980s. Press also presents some of Cunningham’s photographs arranged into stunning montage sequences that show the surprising consistency in Cunningham’s approach, even though the content has changed over the years.
Cunningham arrived late to photography, as he only turned his hobby into a profession when in his 30s. He previously he worked as a milliner for his own business, before he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in France in the early 1950s. A friend gave him an Olympus half height camera and told him to “use it like a pen” to take “notes” of things he saw. This philosophy of photography recalls Alexander Astruc’s theory of the Camera Stylo (camera pen) proposed in the 1940s. Astruc’s theory was that the camera could be used expressively, rather than simply as a mechanical reproduction device. One beautiful montage of Cunningham’s photographs demonstrates his keen eye for composition when he focusses on feet and legs as New Yorkers scurry around the streets after it has rained. This demonstrates Cunningham’s ability to take photographs that create a sense of dynamic movement.
While the fashion that Cunningham documents seems to be in a constant state of change, the way he lives, his working philosophy, and his photographic methods remain startlingly consistent. At one point Press cuts from a recent interview of Cunningham discussing with a former colleague the corrupting influence of money to archive footage from twenty years earlier telling a passer-by on the street the same thing. The documentary also shows Cunningham being forced to move from the apartment above Carnegie Hall where he lived since the 1950s, and which was once home to Leonard Bernstein and Marlon Brando. His apartment is filled with filing cabinets full of his photographic negatives meticulously organised into years and seasons.
In the era of the digital SLR camera, Cunningham still uses a manual 35mm Nikon SLR and assesses his photos by examining the negatives on a light box; marking rejected photos using a wax pencil. His technique is a kind of lost art as, unlike Cunningham, most newspaper photographers no longer enjoy the freedoms to shoot what they want, when they want, using whatever method they like.
Each year Cunningham attends the Paris fashion shows, which he says “trains the eye” so he knows what trends to look for during the following year. A humorous scene shows Cunningham waiting, potentially with his media accreditation, to be allowed into a show before a man intervenes and escorts him inside while telling a college that he is “the most important person in the world”.
The most poignant part of the documentary occurs near the end when Press questions Cunningham, asking if he has ever had a lover, which Cunningham doesn’t really answer but instead turns into a question about his sexuality. Press follows this with another about Cunningham’s strong Catholic faith. It is possible that these elements of Cunningham’s identity are in conflict as he is brought to tears when discussing his religious convictions straight after being unable to discuss intimate relationships.
When this film ends we are left with the impression of a man who has used a camera to record the way others express themselves through the clothes they wear, the events they attend and causes they support. Richard Press shows us how Cunningham lives simply, which has enabled him to dedicate his life to his art in order to bring a sense of beauty others. Highly Recommended.
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