Here is another documentary worth seeing, available on Instant Netflix. Bill Cunningham is an eighty-something street fashion photographer for The New York Times, living in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, surrounded by the now vacant artist studios of such legends as Mark Twain, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, and Isadora Duncan. He lives and breathes street fashion, sleeping in a twin bed sandwiched between messy filing cabinets.
We follow his daily routine: walk his bike down the stairs in the a.m., make a pitstop for a three dollar sandwich, flit from ritzy event to nightlife hotspots to cover New York’s social butterflies, making a point to decline any food or drink. In one scene, the camera follows Cunningham as he photographs a lavish birthday party for a high society matron, working the crowd with murmurs of “child” and “kid.” He hops on his bike and works the same magic with a gathering of drag queens in a different part of town.
Having made his life behind the lens, Bill is a mysterious subject. Interviews with an assortment of fashionistas, fashion editors, designers, and socialites provide incomplete snapshots of his private life. Some observe his comfort with people of privilege and his ambivalence toward money, speculating that he grew up in wealth. Others admit that they are have no idea whether Bill Cunningham is lonely, or if he has a life partner or what his living room looks like. Everyone does have memories of “being photographed by Bill,” seeing their wool coat or pink ankle boots or bowler hat in print, through the eye of his lens.
This documentary really touched me. Okay, it made me tear up a bit. Why? It’s a portrait of someone who is thoroughly kind, an octogenarian who has been biking around New York City for decades, living in relative anonymity, taking pictures of what he finds original, personality-filled, beautiful on the street. Forced to vacate his apartment in Carnegie Hall, Bill faces the prospect of having a kitchen, a closet, a window with a view. You can see that he is wary of these accoutrements. This is someone who sustains himself behind the camera, on the street, cramped between filing cabinets of film negatives until the next day’s search for something beautiful.
[Photo: “Right Back Atcha,” hunter.gatherer’s photo stream]