For institutions so wedded to fact, newspapers are rooted in fantasy, in the enduring romance of the obsessed reporter who finds his stories in the street and lives for the chase. And in all of journalism it would be hard to find a nobler paragon of that myth than New York Times veteran Bill Cunningham. He’s the original street fashion photographer, the inspiration for hip imitators like The Sartorialist. For decades, he has been riding a bicycle through Manhattan, capturing fashion in the wild for his weekly column in the paper’s Sunday Styles section, “On the Street.” Snapping pedestrians, often unawares, he tracks fashion trends with a keen eye, crafting what amounts to an ongoing collage of cultural anthropology. At night, he changes out of his eccentric uniform—the blue smock worn by Paris sanitation workers—puts on a suit, and heads out to photograph charity soirees for his social column, “Evening Hours.”
Now 82, and still working round the clock, Cunningham is a legend at the Times. A stubborn holdout in the digital age, he still spools 35-mm film into his camera. He has no phone, no computer, and spent 60 years living in an artist’s apartment in Carnegie Hall with a shared bathroom down the corridor. Notoriously shy, he shuns the limelight. But he has finally allowed the lens to be turned on himself, and the result is an enthralling documentary: Bill Cunningham New York.
Director Richard Press took a decade to make the film, but spent the first eight years just trying to persuade his subject to co-operate. As a freelance graphic designer, he met Cunningham at the Times while designing one of his columns. Press then teamed up with producer Philip Gefter, who spent 15 years as picture editor at the Times, and they proposed a film. “He just laughed,” Press told Maclean’s. “He thought it was the most ridiculous thing imaginable. Bill is profoundly modest. He doesn’t think he’d be of any interest to anybody. Even his work, though he takes it very seriously, he doesn’t see it as significant. He sees himself as a reporter.”
Over the years, the filmmakers wore Cunningham down, and ended up shooting the stealth photographer in stealth mode, using cheap camcorders and no crew. The film presents a paradoxical portrait of a monk-like man about town. “He’s like a priest,” says Press. “He’s taken a vow of fashion. He doesn’t go to the movies or the theatre, he doesn’t go out to dinner. He works all the time. At midnight he’ll go to a coffee shop and get some scrambled eggs.” Interviewed in the film, uptown icons such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour and author Tom Wolfe speak of Cunningham in reverential tones. But unlike them, he never tries to look the part. If his proletarian garb is a statement, it’s a practical one: he wears paper clips for cufflinks because they come in handy for sorting pictures.
Expressing disdain for the paparazzi, Cunningham insists he cares only about clothes. And he clearly adores his work. When he shoots, he’s always smiling, as if lost in a childlike rapture. At the office, as a frustrated art director designs his page, he gleefully hovers at his side, micromanaging the layout like a fanatical collage artist.
The filmmakers are so protective of their subject they seem loath to crack his enigma. They glide over his family history, though we learn that he was raised Catholic and goes to church every Sunday. Glimpses of his home reveal a pack-rat nest crammed with filing cabinets. (Last year he was moved to an apartment overlooking Central Park and had the kitchen ripped out to make room for the cabinets.) When asked if he’s ever had a romantic relationship, Cunningham laughs. “Do you want to know if I’m gay? Isn’t that a riot. That’s probably why the family wanted to keep me out of the fashion world.” He then admits he’s never had a relationship. “But listen, I’m human. I do have bodily urges.”
In a world of incestuous celebrity journalism, Cunningham is the last purist, a professional voyeur who refuses to cross the line. He covers charity banquets night after night and won’t accept even a glass of water on the job. “Thank you, child,” he says, turning down an offer of food from a gala hostess. “I eat with my eyes.”