Film Review: The Times of Bill Cunningham
By Belle McIntyre
You could be forgiven for thinking that you have already seen the definitive Bill Cunningham documentary. But you would be sadly mistaken and be depriving yourself of one of the more rewarding experiences available. Actually, any and every encounter with Bill is an uplifting and enlightening opportunity. The man was the embodiment of so many qualities which are in short supply in these anxious, over-heated times. And, on top of that, he’s a wonderful photographer with an impressively massive body of work chronicling four decades of fashion/social history. Since his death the New York Times Sunday Style pages are simply not that interesting. whereas during Bill’s tenure, they were often the main or only reason to look at that section.
The foundation of this latest documentary is a taped 1984 interview by Mark Bozek, made to accompany an award. The, normally shy and self-effacing, subject and the director obviously hit it off fantastically. As Bill says to the camera, something to the effect that this was supposed to be a 10 minute interview. But it goes on and on revealing many details of this famously private person’s life. The taped footage of Bill speaking to the camera is interspersed with archival footage from his life, his times, and his own work. His descriptions of his modest Boston Catholic upbringing and the trajectory which brought him to New York City and into the center of the world of fashion, photography, and journalism is told with unalloyed delight and amazement at the collision of unlikely and fortuitous incidents which seemed to conspire to propel him into the direction which was his total fixation from a young age.
It is a Quixotic story, for sure. The super conservative parents who finally agreed to allow the fashion-focused 19-year old to drop out of Harvard and go to New York City to live with relatives to take a job in the advertising department of Bonwit Teller in 1949. The world of fashion retail provided incubation for Bill’s real interest and creativity. Soon enough he was designing hats on the side as “William J” and selling them to the clientele of Bonwit Teller. He caught the attention of the partners of Chez Ninon, a design team who made copies of haute couture dresses for Bonwit’s clients and began working with them, learning the crafts of draping, pattern making and tailoring. Everyone loved Bill, delighted by his idiosyncratic originality, charming personality, his modesty and unbridled enthusiasm. He was clever and willing and learning a lot about fashion.
One of the best parts of his history is his time in Paris. He was drafted into the Army during the Korean War and somehow found himself posted in Paris. While there he found a little studio to rent and began making hats and selling them. He managed to attend the fashion shows and the famous Art Student’s Ball, a legendary costume event. Meanwhile, many of his New York contacts in the garment business would ask him to send things from Paris, especially Chez Ninon. He sent them via Army diplomatic pouches. That was creative.
He did not let the Army derail his fashion career and resumed his millinery business upon his return. He found a studio on the top floor of Carnegie Hall, legendary for the roster of famous artists from the worlds of music, fine art, dance, theatre and fashion. There he met all manner of wild and creative types including Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, and his lifelong friend and collaborator Editta Sherman. Sometime during the 60’s Antonio Lopez, the fashion illustrator and friend, gave him a camera. That was a turning point. He took to it like a new lover and never looked back and never stopped shooting. He had been writing for Women’s Wear and the Chicago Tribune, but he really did not like writing about fashion. He preferred shooting it.
He describes the 1973 fashion show “Battle of Versailles” which was first time that American designers were invited to Paris Fashion Week. The Steven Burroughs show was choreographed by Kay Thompson, Liza Minelli performed and Alva Chin and the first black models walked the runway and it was magnificent, “pure raw talent pressing on the raw nerve of the time”. In 1978 Bill’s famous picture of an incognito Greta Garbo in a nutria fur coat on a New York sidewalk was unidentified. He just liked the cut of the coat. That landed him a job at the New York Times, which then morphed into the two weekly spreads. On The Street, which chronicled his peripatetic travels around the city photographing street fashion included the high and the idiosyncratic. Evening Hours covered glamorous events around town. His Evening Hours spreads not only covered big ticket galas and openings, but also gay events (Wigstock) and AIDS fundraisers at a time when they were generally marginalized by the Times. To all of these locations he rode a bicycle. He devised a uniform consisting of a French Municipal workers blue shirt jacket and corduroy or khaki pants and black sneakers. Bill was invariably cheerful, polite and deferential to everyone he photographed. He was neither a stalker nor a grandstander. Always sensitive to his subjects, he shot every Gay Pride Parade but never developed the film. He felt that it was too personal and invasive. (During his life he left millions to AIDS groups).
In 1983 the Council of Fashion Designers named him Outstanding Photographer of the year. In 2008 he was awarded the Croix d’Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2009 he was named a “living landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy. In 2012 he received the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. All of these honors were received with his customary modesty and incredulity. He did not consider himself a real photographer, more of a chronicler of fashion history. He was able to do what he loved and photograph what he wanted because he often did not accept a salary. (He only went on staff at the Times when he realized he needed health insurance late in his career after a bicycle accident). He lived a spartan life with a monkish devotion to his craft. He was lavishly generous with his friends and he had many. He appears to have been preternaturally happy and optimistic and never spoke a negative word about anyone or anything. The only moment of sadness which he reveals is when he thinks of those friends who were lost to AIDS. Only then does his deep sadness almost overwhelm him.
Upon his death in 2016, which was greatly mourned, there began a movement to name the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57 St. Bill Cunningham Way since he staked it out so much. It would surely be appropriate and it would acknowledge a rare human who was almost too good for this life. And the good news is that there is more of this rare man to be discovered since his memoir, Fashion Climbing, which was discovered posthumously has just a been published and features some of his charming drawings as well as his own words. I cannot wait to read it. One cannot get enough of this incredibly radiant person.
Here’s the link to the official site here