Bill Cunningham: New York’s Indomitable Street Fashion Photographer

If you Google the words “Bill Cunningham living legend” you will get tens of thousands of results – and with good reason. I went to a screening recently of the new documentary film, Bill Cunningham New York, and found it mesmerizing. Cunningham, as some of you may know, is the incredibly humble yet eagle-eyed street fashion photographer at The New York Times. Now 82 years young, he comports himself like a man who retains a youthful enthusiasm for a job that consumes him. He lives like a proverbial monk, devoting all his time to capturing the sartorial zeitgeist.

Cunningham is most interested in the subject of his photos — in the information it imparts about that person — rather than in the photographic image itself. “I don’t really see people—I see clothes” Cunningham said in a 2009 New Yorker magazine profile. Through his marvelous photos of creatively attired individuals in his Sunday Styles column, On the Street, Cunningham aims to subvert the “cookie cutter sameness” in the culture at large. Rather than seeing fashion as a superficial pursuit (as some would have us believe) I’m in total agreement with Cunningham, who maintains that fashion “is the armor to survive the reality of life,” as he says in the film.

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street

Cunningham remains fiercely independent and owns all his own work, despite being an employee of The Times. And he continues to shoot in film when everyone else has switched to a digital format.  Here’s a 2002 article on Cunningham in which he describes his experience working at the old Bonwit Teller department store and as  a hat designer when he first moved to New York from Boston.

Bill Cunningham photographing Vogue editor Anna Wintour

Director Richard Press said it took him eight years to convince Cunningham to participate in the film and two years to shoot and edit it. In pursuing this project, Press wanted to capture Cunninghams’s “essence, his joy, his way of being,” and he certainly succeeded brilliantly. Producer Philip Gefter admitted that Cunningham “brought me back to my innocence.”

In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Cunningham gives a short and humble acceptance speech in Paris when he’s being decorated with an award as a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. He says quite simply, “He who seeks beauty will find it.”

As soon as the screening ended I immediately thought of one phrase to describe the man: “pure of heart.” I, for one, hope he lives forever.

Bill Cunningham photographing a fashion moment

The film Bill Cunningham New York opens this Wednesday March 16th at New York’s Film Forum (click to see the trailer) and will be playing across the country thereafter. See the screening schedule here.

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