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Bill Cunningham New York

Richard Press, Bill Cunningham New York, 2010, still from a color video, 84 minutes.

HAD I CONSIDERED the possibility of running into Bill Cunningham at the Union Square farmers’ market on a December Saturday last year, I would have tied my scarf with a bit more care. The women selling Beth’s Farm preserves told me he had photographed them in their huge Christmas hats for his New York Times On the Street column. I stayed on alert, hoping to spot the agile if slightly stooped octogenarian in his signature bright blue parka darting among the crowds, cameras at the ready, like a strangely gentle and cheerful seabird intent on finding a breakfast treat. But he was gone before I arrived.

“We all get dressed for Bill,” says Anna Wintour, in Richard Press’s lovely and heartening documentary Bill Cunningham New York—though Wintour’s “we” no doubt encompasses a narrower demographic than that of the devotees of Cunningham’s photojournalism, which, in the world of fashion, is uniquely democratic. For more than thirty years—aniticipating style bloggers by decades—Cunningham’s pictures have shown Manhattan habitués how they look (or might want to look) as they walk about the streets by day and also how a more rarified group of them dress when they hit the charity-event circuit at night. In addition to his two regular columns, On the Street and Evening Hours, Cunningham also shoots the runways during fashion weeks in New York and Paris. In his beautifully fashioned piece “Bill on Bill,” which appeared in the Times in 2002, Cunningham explained that, to give a “full picture of what people are wearing,” you must cover all three of these areas. It’s no discredit to Bill Cunningham New York that the photographer repeats on-screen much of what he previously wrote. The advantage of the movie is that we also see his work process in all its marvelous (or, as Cunningham says, “mahvelous”) idiosyncrasy.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about BCNY is that Press and producer Philip Gefter, former colleagues of Cunningham’s at the Times, persuaded him to endure their camera. Cunningham is not merely uninterested in celebrity—he fears it like death, or perhaps, practicing Catholic that he is, like sin. He loves beautiful clothes, stylishness, and, most of all, stylish creativity, regardless of who has designed or is wearing the getup. Indeed, the only cutting remark Cunningham makes in the movie is in response to a friend who says that Andy Warhol was impossible to photograph. “What do you mean?” says Cunningham in a voice edged ever so faintly with contempt. “That’s what he was all about. Being photographed.”

Here are some of the interesting things you might learn from the documentary: Cunningham still shoots on 35-mm film, which he gets developed in a Times Square variety store. He never accepts even a glass of water when he covers charity parties (“I certainly wouldn’t compromise the Times,” he explains), and he chooses which parties to cover by determining which charities are most meaningful, not by who chairs the event. When he covers the Paris collections, he pays his own airfare. (“If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do. . . . Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty, freedom, is the most expensive.”)

Strikingly unimpressed by wealth or celebrity, Cunningham lived for fifty years in the Carnegie Hall building, in a small studio crammed with file cabinets; he shared a bathroom down the hall. People assume he comes from money because only people who do could show so little regard for it. But, in fact, his stock is working-class Boston Catholic. When he was young, he was always distracted in church by the ladies’ hats. Although his family never talked openly about “such things,” he was aware that they were worried by his interest in fashion.

For the most part, the documentary stays on the outside, accepting whatever Cunningham chooses to do or say and not probing for more. The photographer wears his chipper smile and evasive body language like armor, which is precisely how he thinks of fashion. (“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”) Toward the end of the movie, however, Gefter, whose voice we hear asking all the questions, brings up the subject of romantic relationships. “Do you want to know if I’m gay?” counters Cunningham, more straightforward than his interviewer dares to be. It’s a delicate moment, but as it turns out, it is not the issue of sexual preference per se that upsets Cunningham—he doesn’t define himself in such terms, never having had a sexual relationship—but rather something about his sexuality in relation to his religion. We watch with discomfort as Cunningham’s armor cracks, or, rather, we surmise it has cracked, because he bends his head to his chest and hides his face completely. The gesture is sadly, mahvelously human. Then, as quickly as the armor fell, it’s back in place. How could he have time for relationships, Cunningham scoffs, when he has so much work to do?

In the second half of the twentieth century, at least three extensive, unofficial imagistic histories of New York City were produced: Jonas Mekas’s 16-mm diaries, Warhol’s multimedia oeuvre, and Cunningham’s photography. The parallels between Bill and Andy are so striking they hardly need to be spelled out. But in the final sequence, Press follows up on Cunningham’s one fleeting reference to Warhol. As we watch the photographer work the streets, the sound track cues up the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the song most identified with Warhol. I wonder what Cunningham felt when he heard that.

Bill Cunningham New York opens on March 16 at Film Forum in New York.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.