I’m a reverse snob. You know – someone who professes not to care about shallow shit like fashion and social status. Well, it goes further than mere indifference. Contempt is closer to the mark.
Of course, I realised at some stage I was kidding myself. I cared enough to have a strong attitude on this stuff, didn’t I? And chose my clothes to present a self-image that on some level expressed who I was, or thought I was. I gradually came to the conclusion that the only people who really don’t care about their appearance are those who have given up on society and themselves. The rest of us wilfully project a chosen self-image, and therefore nod to fashion of some kind, whether we like to admit it or not.
That intro is supposed to soften up the reverse snobs among yas before I begin this review proper. See, if someone recommended a doco about a fashion photographer to me, I would be dismissive. Fashion = bullshit. Right?
Point 1: Nothing’s that simple.
Point 2: Stick to that line and you’ll deny yourself a truly wonderful doco experience. Why would you want to do that?
Defences down, just a little bit? OK, then I’ll begin.
As a dedicated unfollower of fashion, I’d never heard of Bill Cunningham. For similarly unenlighted readers, he’s known in New York for his ‘On The Street’ column in The New York Times (now an online multi-media slide show), which features his photographs chronicling NY street fashion. Not “street” as in tribal youth gear – rather, residents expressing themselves sartorially as they get about their everyday lives, whether they be ‘ordinary folk’ or celebrities, on the street or at society dos. Stay with me! Bill is no run-o-the-mill rag trade photographer!
Now 82 years old, he has always shunned the limelight, is not interested in photographing celebs wearing “free clothes” (who are not expressing themselves in their choice of apparel; rather, they are merely walking sandwich boards for the designer labels), refuses payment for his pics, and even declines food and drink at swish functions, where his only pursuit is the next great pic of attendees in beautiful garb. He eats $3 lunches and gets about in $20 blue plastic worker jackets, which have been his trademark for decades. Every day he does what he’s been doing for most of his adult life: hops on his bicycle with his trusty Nikon and infuses himself into the street life of NYC, focused only on his photography. He has an undiminished burning passion for his work – and, it seems, nothing else!
For decades, he lived alone in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall leased to him for peppercorn rent, with a communal bathroom down the corridor. During the documentary he and the only other tenant remaining (98-year-old photographer, Editta Sherman) have to move after the last of these apartments, once set aside for artists, are taken over by commercial interests. His real estate agent finds him another tiny room (this time with a splendid view, to which he appears entirely indifferent!). He asks for the kitchen stove to be taken out to make way for the scores of filing cabinets in which he stores the negatives of every photograph he has ever taken. He sleeps on a cot just off the floor.
It goes without saying that this charming, obsessive old guy with the sweetest of demeanours is an eccentric and an enigma, but he’s more than that. He’s a veritable legend in NY, known to all within the fashion industry (Vogue ice-queen Anna Wintour quips: “We all get dressed for Bill”), and to many without.
Yet he’s a loner, ever the outsider observer. Never partnered, he attends church weekly, and at the juxtaposition of these aspects of his life in an interview towards the end of the film, he breaks down momentarily. Perhaps this hints at an inner conflict that might explain his sublimating the expression of his humanity in his photography. But a correction is in order here. It’s not really his humanity that he’s expressing – it’s everyone elses! Bill is as close to egoless as you’ll find this side of Buddah’s cave. And in the midst of the fashion world?! In NYC?!!
Apparently the director, Richard Press, along with producer Philip Gefter and cinematographer Tony Cenicola, followed Bill Cunningham around New York for two years, with no crew. They have taken a low key, gentle, unobtrusive approach to put together an utterly captivating and extremely moving portrait of a unique and fascinating individual, an aesthete and ascetic living a zen-like existence in the unlikeliest of milieus.
I watched with a smile on my face just about all the way through, simultaneously tearing up at the sense of Bill’s time, and the times he has recorded, passing (I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beautiful and heart-rending poem, Spring & Fall). On a couple of occasions I tore my eyes from the screen and glanced along the row – everyone else was beaming, also.
This is a rare cinematic experience. A treat. See it.
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