Plenty of documentaries fall in love with their subjects, suddenly too shy to capture their flaws or failures. Much rarer, though, is a one that convinces you there were no flaws to be found. Bill Cunningham New York is that sort of unashamed celebration of its star: the titular 80-year-old fashion photographer, most famous for his ‘On The Street’ page in the New York Times.
It focuses on Cunningham’s work, not his private life. For him, the former is the latter. He’s one of the last artists living in a rent-controlled studio in Carnegie Hall, squeezed into whatever space remains around his dozens of filing cabinets. He spends his days riding his bike through the streets of New York, grinning while snapping pictures of whomever he sees wearing something striking.
This isn’t about ‘what’s in’ versus ‘what’s out’; the glee Cunningham feels as he carefully lays out his photographs for print is palpable, and the mocking tone accompanying so many magazine spreads horrifies him. Director Richard Press treats Cunningham’s collection of eccentric fashion subjects with a similar dignity - occasionally ‘zany’ music notwithstanding.
We’re also shown how Cunningham’s at ease around the ridiculous excesses of uptown swank. (Legends like Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe appear to sing his praises, too.) But he refuses free food and drink at parties, worried it would compromise his objectivity. “That’s the key to the whole thing,” he says. “Don’t touch money.” Like Elliot Ness bringing down Capone, Cunningham’s untouchable.
Despite the melancholy sense of an era’s end - from the annoyance of getting his film developed to the fight to evict artists from Carnegie Hall - this documentary is both breezily entertaining and genuinely uplifting. God knows only someone like Bill could make New York’s cutthroat world of fashion seem so sweet.