Rarely has anyone embodied contradictions as happily and harmoniously as octogenarian New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. Obsessed with how people dress, he unfailingly dons the same shapeless jacket; a chronicler of ritzy charity events, he tools around Manhattan on a bike. Cunningham’s two weekly spreads in the Sunday Style section form complementary opposites: “On the Street” features everyday Gothamites decked out in eclectic fashion statements, while “Evening Hours” captures the rich clad in haute couture. Whatever this Times-produced, TV-ready tribute lacks in tension is amply compensated by the pleasure of watching an enthusiast ply the craft he loves.
Less art photographer than cultural anthropologist, Cunningham holds a unique place in fashion history with his pictorial record of the changing New York scene. When a guard at a Paris designer show questions his credentials, an insider quickly escorts him in, exclaiming, “He’s the most important man in the world!” Vogue editor Anna Wintour (herself the subject of R.J. Cutler’s docu “The September Issue”) credits him with spotting future fashion trends the rest of the industry goes to school on.
Docu is filled with glowing encomiums by museum curators, authors and photographic subjects from all walks of life, including an ex-diplomat arrayed in a dazzling montage of outlandish getups. But the heart and soul of the film is its archival and present-day footage of Cunningham at work as he pedals his 29th Schwinn (28 having been stolen) all over the city, waiting at street corners to snap whatever trend, anomaly or felicitous ensemble strikes his fancy. Shooting on the fly with a small 35mm camera, the film then processed at a neighborhood variety store, Cunningham scans the negative into a computer and works with his art editor to lay out the page.
Cunningham lovingly recalls the heyday of Details magazine with editor Annie Flanders, who often generously allotted a hundred pages an issue for his idiosyncratic images. Less nostalgically, a colleague recalls Cunningham’s resignation from Women’s Wear Daily after his illustrated celebration of fashion across class lines was rewritten as a snobby put-down.
Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable discussing anything but his work, which joyously occupies his every waking minute. Modest, unassuming, in every way the antithesis of the flashy birds of paradise he loves to photograph, he remains notoriously reclusive. Though he is recognized, beloved and embraced everywhere he goes, few people really know anything about him. Aside from dispelling the myth that he comes from money and eliciting the info that he’s never been involved in a serious relationship, Press’ docu adds little of substance; the occasional scenes in which Cunningham is grilled about his private life produce more awkwardness than revelation.