In “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” the late New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham appears before us as a blissed-out aging choirboy. He sits in his small apartment, surrounded by file cabinets jammed with his work, a geek in his element, with a shock of gray hair and two jutting front teeth that give him a big rabbity smile so eager it’s giddy — and the thing is, he means it. That antic grin lights up the room.
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is the second documentary to be made about the Times’ legendary on-the-street photographer and shutterbug of society, and it contains a revealing story about the first, “Bill Cunningham New York.” That film was released in 2011, when Cunningham was in his early eighties (he died in 2016), and it was a profile made with his ardent approval and cooperation. So you’d assume that he might have wanted to attend the New York premiere of it. But no. He skipped the premiere, and for good measure never bothered to see the movie.
Instead, when the early spring evening that should have been his red-carpet moment was happening, Cunningham was out doing what he always did: gliding through the New York streets on his trademark bicycle, looking for ordinary people to photograph — and not-so-ordinary people, though the beauty of Cunningham’s work is that he never made the distinction. He didn’t see it, so he didn’t make it. In one of his typical Sunday photo collages, you might encounter five different images of women on the street, each photographed wearing the same dress, all looking quite different in it, next to a shot of a celebrity strolling along in that same dress. But you’d always have to do a double take before you said, “Oh, look, it’s Claire Danes,” because Cunningham lent each figure the graceful mystery and radiance of a celebrity. On his weekly page, everybody was a star.
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Cunningham himself became a star, though only reluctantly, in the most head-ducking and self-effacing way. He thrived on being behind the camera and behind the scenes, as he had since the 1940s, when he arrived in New York from his native Boston to work at Bonwit Teller. There’s now a full-scale genre of fashion-world documentaries, a category that found its commercial niche around a decade ago, with the release of “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” But something that has struck me over the last year is that there’s a special, intoxicating quality to movies that excavate the fashion demimonde prior to the 1960s — in other words, the “Phantom Thread” era or before. It might be Warhol doing his shoe drawings in the ’50s, or Cecil Beaton inventing the ’30s fairy-tale kingdom according to Vogue, or (in this case) Bill Cunningham, a sharply grinning young man of the most innocent flamboyance, from a conservative working-class Irish Catholic family, coming to New York and deciding to become a milliner, all because he thought that women’s hats could be like something out of a dream.
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is built around an extended interview Cunningham gave in 1994 to a reporter named Mark Bozek (who’s the director of the film). The interview was supposed to be 10 minutes long, but Cunningham, then 65, just kept talking. He was one of those lucky individuals who’d discovered the secret of a happy existence: If you love what you do and do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.
The Cunningham we meet took this ethos to a purified Buddhist extreme. He went out to shoot pictures every day, reveling in the discovery of each moment, and he got invited to some very fancy parties, but apart from that he led a spartan existence. In the ’50s, he moved into one of the fabled studios above Carnegie Hall and occupied that privileged but monastic space until the day he died. It was like a highbrow version of the Chelsea Hotel, and we hear great stories about how Marlon Brando, who also had a studio there, would hide out in Cunningham’s to get away from all the girls who were mobbing him, or how Cunningham rubbed shoulders with figures from Martha Graham to a naked house-guesting Norman Mailer.
Cunningham speaks neurotically quickly, still with a trace of his Boston accent, and the quality he communicates is an openness to any inspiration. The secret of his photography, he says, wasn’t aesthetic talent; it was closer to having a detective’s eye. That’s why, on the sidewalk, he was always able to spot people like Boy George or — in a historic moment — the aging reclusive Greta Garbo, who hadn’t been photographed for decades. He was a man of the moment. When Bozek asks Cunningham, late in the film, if he is ever sad about anything, without saying a word he puts his head down and silently begins to weep. Just like that. A little later, he tells us that he’s thinking of all the friends he lost to AIDS.
Cunningham found a place in the fashion world, working for the designers who dressed Jackie Kennedy, but it wasn’t until someone gave him a camera that he found his calling. He had the talent to be a designer, but by temperament he was an observer. He first demonstrated that in his fashion-world commentary for Women’s Wear Daily, which read like gossip written by someone without a catty bone in his body; it was dish served by a man who loved life. He preserved that voice in the short passages he wrote alongside the weekly street gallery that became one of the most popular and iconic destinations in the Sunday New York Times. The movie is filled with his images, many never published in the Times, and you can feel the pleasure he took in shooting each one of them.
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is only 74 minutes long, yet it’s a snapshot of a life that leaves you grateful for having encountered it. Cunningham insists he wasn’t an artist, and in a way the movie recognizes that he was right. He was a natural photographer who anticipated the digital era, but his gift wasn’t so much for crafting impeccable images. It was a talent for living that he expressed through his lens. He was a reporter who forged his own unique beat: the beauty of other people.