Bill Cunningham documentary inspires a new perspective
Perhaps no photographer has had a more significant impact on fashion than Bill Cunningham. For decades, the man has snapped candid portraits of New Yorkers and their clothing. Recently, “Bill Cunningham New York,” a documentary film, interviewed figures like Anna Wintour about Cunningham’s influence. I found the documentary to be a positive portrayal of an apparently sweet old man obsessed with fashion.
Unfortunately, I also naïvely found the film itself to be a bit lacking. I wanted to know more about the subject’s roots and origins, personal life and how he became the Bill Cunningham revered by the fashion public, rather than the minutia of his daily life. Though I went looking for juicy details about Cunningham’s background, it seems as though the smaller day-to-day details are more significant for understanding who he is.
The octogenarian Harvard dropout began his career in advertising before designing hats under the label William J. After serving in the army, he began work as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. It wasn’t until his stints with the Tribune and eventually Women’s Wear Daily, Details Magazine and The New York Times that he began photographing fashionable subjects in their elements, both at events and on the street.
During the film, however, he made it clear that he isn’t a photographer or a trendsetter. Rather, he captures what the masses decide are the trends instead of dictating to consumers what they should wear. In fact, many journalists and critics refer to him as a social anthropologist more so than a fashion photographer.
His time in the industry has allowed him to call out designers who attempt to refashion garments from the past as their own. During the film, he discussed publishing a photo of an Isaac Mizrahi gown eerily resembling one made by Geoffrey Beene a few years earlier. Such an occurrence could have easily passed by many in the industry, but not Cunningham. He said that his camera is “like a pen. I use it to take notes.” It’s this kind of social documentation that commands the respect bestowed upon Mr. Cunningham.
Not only is he known for having recorded major trends in the industry since the 1960s, but also many of his followers respect his humble lifestyle, ethics and refusal to take money from the man.
Perhaps the film wished to establish the notion that Cunningham’s story is about his work more so than his personal life. My only experience with Cunningham prior to watching the documentary at the Tivoli had been through his videos on nytimes.com and his trend and society spreads in the fashion and style sections of The New York Times. I’ve always thought he had a great eye and a unique perspective, along with a peculiar voice. “Anyone who seeks beauty will find it,” he said during a French award presentation in his honor. Perhaps that’s what fashion is all about.
Many of the personalities featured in the film were in fact very colorful and Cunningham loved them and treated them as normal human beings. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut and be judgmental when observing other people’s personal styles. I’m sure that if Cunningham himself set foot on this campus, he would challenge us to recognize or compliment someone whose style is the polar opposite of our own, just as he does every day.