Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 22, 2010 8:41 am 
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On the go: capturing street chic

If you pick up the Style section of the Sunday New York Times you know who Bill Cunningham is. For many decades Bill has taken snapshots of fashion as it really is, "On the Street." He recently celebrated his 80th birthday. This film is a study of a man of tireless dedication (he calls it "obsession," though he's not a dramatic man), ceaseless good humor, and monastic focus. Evidently celibate, until recently he has lived in a tiny apartment in Carnegie Hall with no kitchen or bathroom, nothing but file cabinets of negatives and a pallet on the floor to sleep on. The real Bill Cunningham is the smiling man on the street, with an old Nikon in hand, shooting film, capturing elegance and style as they actually appear on the streets of Manhattan. He also goes to fashion week in Paris, but he shoots fast, from the side, not at the end of the runway like all the others. He rides everywhere on a Schwinn. "This is my 29th," he says; "28 were stolen." He goes everywhere, the St. Patrick's parade, a chic charity ball. He discovered before others did that a certain Japanese designer got her inspiration from New York bag ladies.

The concept is democratic and the personal style is modest.

Bill Cunningham had to be caught on the run by Richard Press. He doesn't sit down very much. There are several issues brought up. Is he gay? (Well, you might say that.) Is religion important in his life? (After a long pause, yes.) What is his background? People keep saying he must come from an upper class family, because he's at ease with the rich. No, just ordinary working class people, he says. But details are lacking. What he does tell us is that he got some money to start a fashion business designing hats and then when he was drafted into the army at the time of the Korean war, he went, and that was the end of his hat business. We see some of his hats, though, because a lady with a big apartment in the Carnegie Hall building has some. The film explores the issue of those Carnegie Hall residents, the only cause other than clothes and snapshots that comes up.

Cunningham dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York in 1948. He started in advertising, then switched to hat design under the name "William J." After the Korean War tour, he wrote for the Chicago Tribune and Women's Wear Daily. He also wrote for Details magazine in its early, adventurous days. Since he wrote a lot about fashion, he began taking his shots on the street. It was in the late Seventies that the Times began publishing his work on a regular basis. He shoots photographs on the street every day; most of what he shoots is never published. He often captures fashion people, celebrity people, society, but anybody whose clothes are distinctive appeals to his eye. However the rich and chic generally like to be photographed by him, even if at first it was without their special permission. Brooke Astor requested his presence at her 100th birthday party (we see this party). Anna Wintour speaks very highly of him. "Nuclear Wintour," with her big shades off, addresses Press' camera, revealing remarkably pretty eyes (why does she always hide them?) becomes downright warm and gushy talking about the photographer. "We all get dressed for Bill," is her oft-quoted line. Designers and the Met's fashion curator speak of him with great respect. So do various people notable for their wardrobes of outlandish, self-conscious clothes, or distinctive "look" (like Tom Wolfe). Why do so many people dress drably, like everybody else? Cunningham asks.

Recently the artistic director of Carnegie Hall, or some such title, announced that all the old residents, who'd been living there since the Forties, had to go to further the hall's "artistic" function. In fact the film shows that the vacated apartment spaces have just been rented out to businesses to make money. It was all about money. But Bill apparently got set up somehow with a rather nice substitute apartment, something overlooking Central Park. (He had the kitchen fixtures removed, because "I've never eaten in in my life." Doubtless he needed the space for his negative files.)

Bill Cunningham is a strange man, though a pleasant one. He has never had a romantic attachment in his life. He rarely does anything that is not part of the pursuit of his photographs. But his integrity and focus have brought special rewards. Apart from the admiration and respect of the various talking heads in this film, in 2008, while this film was being made, he was awarded the title Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. The official who bestowed it tells the camera that Bill doesn't think himself worthy of this award, and that is why he is worthy of it. His little speech, in a humble and free mixture of pidgen French and English, is yet another touching artifact of the man.

Bill Cunningham is not a great photographer, but he is a singularly dedicated recorder of American fashion history, with a good eye. This is not a profound document but its relevance to New York life is clear enough.

Bill Cunningham New York, which was made by filmmaker Richard Press and Philip Gefter of the Times over a two-year period, was shown as the opening film at the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA.


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