Friday, April 22, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

"The best fashion show is on the street" said Bill Cunningham. This charming 82 year old photographer is the original Sartorialist, capturing New York street style and society parties for the New York Times. His  two weekly columns called "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" have been fixtures in the Sunday paper for nearly 50 years.

Originally opening in New York on March 16, this documentary by Richard Press and Philip Gefter  finally arrived in Toronto and I attended the pre-screening last night at the Varsity Theatre as a guest of Fashion Television.

The movie celebrates Bill Cunningham's work as a "fashion anthropologist". Not interested in celebrities, Bill uses his Nikon camera and Kodak film to document what people are wearing on the street. Out in all types of weather, he says "I let the street speak to me". Stalking his fashionable prey like a hunter, he wears the uniform of a French garbageman and rides his Schwinn bicycle around the city looking for creative dressers to photograph. Many of his photographs have never been published and he keeps the archives of his negatives in rows of filing cabinets that dominate his apartment.

It is clear that this man loves his work. Living a monastic existence in a tiny studio apartment with a shared bathroom, he works day and night. His bicycle is his main mode of transport even at night when he attends an array of gala benefits where he photographs pretty party-goers and philanthropists. Seeming at ease with everyone, he refuses to accept even a glass of water at any of the events he attends,  fearing that to do so might compromise his independence.

"We all get dressed for Bill" said Anna Wintour who went on to add that it was a bad day when Bill declined to photograph her. Interviews with other style makers like Harold Koda, Patrick Macdonald, and Iris Apfel  give evidence to how much this man is loved. In 2008, Bill Cunningham was awarded the title chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture which was pinned onto his blue garbageman smock. He also worked the event saying it was "too much fun not to".

I sat through the movie with a big smile on my face and laughed out loud at Cunningham's sharp wit and fierce sense of independence. Although there are some awkward moments in the movie, like when Bill is asked about his religion and relationships, the movie paints a colourful picture of a man that has been a fixture on the New York fashion scene for decades. Plus I couldn't help but admire someone who says "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do".