Bill Cunningham is a myth in the fashion world. If he’s not present at your fashion show or for your party, you might as well consider it an absolute shame and your professional death. For more than 40 years, Bill Cunningham has followed the fashion trends and the mundane tendencies with an anthropological eye. This discrete and abnormally shy character is the hero of the film that will be out this Wednesday in New York called Bill Cunningham, New York.
About the film
“We all get dressed for Bill,” says Vogue editrix Anna Wintour. The “Bill” in question is 80+ New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. For decades, this Schwinn-riding cultural anthropologist has been obsessively and inventively chronicling fashion trends and high society charity soirées for the Times Style section in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours.” Documenting uptown fixtures (Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor, David Rockefeller—who all appear in the film out of their love for Bill), downtown eccentrics and everyone in between, Cunningham’s enormous body of work is more reliable than any catwalk as an expression of time, place and individual flair. In turn, Bill Cunningham New York is a delicate, funny and often poignant portrait of a dedicated artist whose only wealth is his own humanity and unassuming grace.
Bill dropped out of Harvard University in 1948 and moved to New York, where he initially worked in advertising. Not long after, he quit his job and struck out on his own, making hats under the name “William J.” After being drafted and serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he returned to New York and got a job writing for the Chicago Tribune. During his years as a writer, he contributed significantly to fashion journalism, introducing American audiences to Azzedine Alaia and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
In 1966, a photographer that Cunningham knew gave him an Olympus Pen D half-frame camera. “He said, ‘Here, use it like a notebook.’ And that was the real beginning.” wrote Cunningham in “Bill on Bill”—an autobiographical article, published in the Times in 2002
While working at the Tribune and at Women’s Wear Daily, he began taking photographs of fashion on the streets of New York. As the result of a chance photograph of Greta Garbo, he published a group of his impromptu pictures in the Times in December 1978, which soon became a regular series. His editor, Arthur Gelb, has called these photographs “a turning point for the Times, because it was the first time the paper had run pictures of well-known people without getting their permission.”
Bill photographs people and the passing scene in the streets of Manhattan every day. Most of his pictures, he has said, are never published. Designer Oscar de la Renta has said, “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York. It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.” Though he has made a career out of unexpected photographs of celebrities, socialites, and fashion personalities, many in those categories value his company. According to David Rockefeller, Brooke Astor asked he be invited to her 100th birthday party, the only member of the media so honored.
In 2008 he was awarded the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
Bill Cunningham, New York
Opens March16 in New York
Directed by Richard Press
Produced by Philip Gefter
Edited by Ryan Denmark
The film Featuring (in order of appearance): Editta Sherman, Patrick McDonald, Harold Koda, John Kurdewan, Carmen Dell’ Orefice, Annette de la Renta, Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, Shail Upadhya, Kim Hastreiter, Annie Flanders, Lesley Vinson, Josef Astor, Toni “Suzette” Cimino, Thelma Golden, Tom Wolfe, Kenny Kenny, Anna Piaggi, Didier Grumbach and Michael Kors
2010 • USA • 84 mins • Color • In English • Stereo • Digital