Bill Cunningham New York may just be the perfect documentary. It’s a heart-warming insight into one man’s extraordinary life, a window to the fabulous veneer of the Big Apple and a must-see for anyone interested in the creative process. The New York Times photographer has for decades recorded fashion trends, photographing the city’s most stylish and whittling down the multiple images to a playful editorial narrative. In the process he’s become one of New York’s most unlikely yet loved social anthropologists. You don’t need to care about clothes to enjoy this. It’s a joy just to watch the sunny Cunningham in action, flitting between snapping the haute-couture Upper East-siders who appear to adore him, to the larger-than-life transsexuals and street-smart hipsters, who are mostly happy to pose.
It’s not just Cunningham who provides the entertainment. From the unusually upbeat Vogue editor Anna Wintour to the hilariously camp style fixture Patrick McDonald to designer Michael Kors, the film bursts with the famous, the outlandish and the downright eccentric, all of them waxing lyrical on the photographer’s legacy and integrity.
Cunningham himself acts as a kind of social prism, through which the winds of change – fashion, technology, society – are refracted. In some ways he’s a relic, an old guy in a boiler suit who rides around on his pushbike, shunning celebrities unless they fit his stylish brief. He’s still on analogue and files every image he’s ever taken in huge cabinets stacked in his tiny apartment; he’s perhaps the least glamorous, yet most important person at New York Fashion Week.
Yet throughout the film Cunningham finds himself confronting change, whether it’s accepting the inevitability of his living situation, or the painful truth of his personal life. Filmmaker Richard Press maintains as respectful a distance as the photographer does with his subjects. His life might be all about the clothes – well that’s how Cunningham would modestly put it – but it makes for one hell of a story.