Before Cobra Snake or the Sartorialist, there was Bill Cunningham
“The best fashion show in the world is on the street.”
That’s according to Bill Cunningham, the celebrated photographer whose On the Street columns appear every Sunday in the New York Times. And he should know. Chief chronicler of the everyman's sartorial whims (such as the coat above) for nearly 50 years, he is the subject of a new film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” which is scheduled to open March 25 for a weeklong run at the Nuart in West Los Angeles.
Before there was Cobra Snake, the Sartorialist or Style Hunter — and long before the Internet's great rise — Cunningham, 82, was the original street photographer. To fashionable New Yorkers, he’s a fixture of city life, always ready to snap a photo of the curve of a high heel or the spire of a hat. “We all get dressed for Bill,” Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour says in the film.
Not that he would ever take a photo because you wanted him to. That would compromise journalistic ethics so dear that he won’t even accept a glass of water from hosts of the glittery events he photographs for his Evening Hours society columns, also for the New York Times.
Cunningham prizes individual style in what he calls “the age of cookie-cutter sameness.” His work transcends fashion to become cultural anthropology, whether he’s documenting sagging men’s trousers in the 1990s or the vintage thrift store furs worn during the most recent New York Fashion Week. (A few years back, he caught me on film outside a runway show, changing from my fashionable heels into my comfortable flip-flops.)
“You have to let the street speak to you,” Cunningham says in the film directed by Richard Press, a touching portrait of the photographer at work on his favorite corner at 57th Street and 5th Avenue, and dozens of other places in New York and Paris, as well as at home in the same small studio above Carnegie Hall where he’s lived for 50 years.
His first assignment was to photograph the flower children at a “be in” at Sheep Meadow in Central Park. And over the years, his columns have been paeans to peacockery featuring uptown socialite Brooke Astor, downtown denizen Kenny Kenny and a horde of others.
Some of his favorite subjects appear in the film, including Iris Apfel, the 89-year-old former interior designer instantly recognizable by her fried egg-sized eyeglass frames; Patrick McDonald, the inveterate dandy; Anna Piaggi, the Italian fashion editor who never met a hat she didn’t like; and Shail Upadhya, the former Nepalese diplomat known for loud patterned suits.
The film also offers a window into Cunningham’s ascetic lifestyle, a striking contrast to the fanciful plumage he is drawn to in his work.
His studio is unfurnished save for filing cabinets holding the negatives for every photo he’s ever taken. He sleeps on a mattress and wood plank with milk crates for sidetables, and uses a public bathroom down the hall. For someone so obsessed with clothes, he doesn’t even have a closet, hanging his few garments on the handle of a file cabinet instead.
Cunningham rides a beat-up bike everywhere and wears the same uniform every day, which is its own kind of signature style — dark pants and the same blue work jacket worn by the street cleaning crews in Paris.
One senses that the simplicity of his private life is a respite from the fashion circus and that any kind of ostentation or expense, at least where Cunningham himself is concerned, is an embarassment. (It took the filmmakers eight years to convince him be filmed.)
There’s a Yankee industriousness to him, too, and the tension that exists in men of a certain age who were gay and interested in fashion before it was socially acceptable. He didn’t set out to be a photographer but, rather, a milliner, designing hats under the label William J. His Salon, which opened in 1951, catered to the likes of Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe — not that he cared because “they didn’t have style.”
When Cunningham was drafted during the Korean War, a wealthy investor he’d teamed up with assumed he wouldn’t go. When he did ship out, the investor fought him for the money, even threatening to take it out of his Army salary. (Eventually, Cunningham’s family repaid the loan.)
It was a lesson that stayed with him all his life.
“Money is the cheapest thing,” Cunningham says. “Liberty is the most expensive.”
Cunningham got his first camera as a gift. Over the years, he’s worked for the Chicago Tribune, Details magazine before it was sold to Conde Nast and for Women’s Wear Daily, until he had a falling out with the trade publication over images used to illustrate an “ins and outs” fashion column.
“The evaluation of one person or one image over another is not something he ascribes to,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute curator Harold Koda says in the film.
Cunningham believed in the democracy of fashion before it was fashionable. He doesn’t care about celebrities; he doesn’t go to movies or own a TV. He attends church every Sunday, which he says keeps him grounded.
On the fashion show merry-go-round, he is a kind face who actually smiles while he works and always has something “mahvelous” to say in that wonderful old Boston accent.
And yet there are sad moments in the film, when Cunningham admits to never having had a romantic relationship in his life.
He breaks down, lowers his head, regains his composure and says, “I guess you can’t be in love with your work, but … ”
But he is, and we are better for it.
-- Booth Moore
Photos: Bill Cunningham / First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films