For many months, I’ve heard the repetitious loop of the disembodied voice of New York Times street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham coming through the wall of my office (the soundtrack was being edited for a new documentary film). On Wednesday, I finally saw Bill Cunningham New York at New Directors New Films ’10 at the Museum of Modern Art. It is FABULOUS!!!!! Given the recent spate of splendid documentaries about fashion (which incidentally is not my thing), including Valentino: The Last Emperor and The September Issue, this new film directed by Richard Press and produced by Philip Gefter continues the high standard. What’s more important, it introduces to the world (even those who are otherwise indifferent to fashion) a uniquely brilliant chronicler of the cultural scene.
For the past two decades, I’ve said hello to Bill Cunningham as we passed each other in the Times halls. I’ve enjoyed his photographic features in The New York Times Style section, especially his keen attention to editing minute details. But I never knew the man. This gem of a film is an incredible portrait of a New York institution. He’s not paparazzi, but rather a sociologazzi; he captures trends, not for voyeuristic ends, but to describe and define the times in which we live. He doesn’t exploit, he records his subjects with respect (but make sure your clothes are not cookie-cuter-mundane). Fashion may be his beat, but as someone said in the film, he’s like a “war photographer,” he’ll do anything to get the right shot. And he gets it more often than not. By the way, he still only uses film.
Great documentary films open our collective consciousness. Bill Cunningham New York is the bar raised high. After seeing the film, you’ll wish you’d known him.