“Money is the cheapest thing. Freedom is the most expensive.” – Bill Cunningham
Having heard about the documentary Bill Cunningham New York last year I was looking forward to seeing it and luckily I managed to catch it in the Lighthouse Cinema recently. Directed by Richard Press, the documentary is a profile of Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times.
Bill Cunningham is a legend in fashion circles, but because of his unassuming demeanour and his low key appearance, he has flown underneath the popular radar for a long time. Flashes of this appear in the documentary: two school girls yell at him saying “don’t take a picture of us, I’ll break your fucking camera.”; a young fashion PR scans the guest list for Cunningham’s name until an industry veteran ushers him through saying, “he’s the most important person in the world.” This documentary will no doubt increase Cunningham’s fame but that’s probably the last thing he wants. He comes across as a simple man with frugal tastes and an almost ascetic lifestyle. His passion is his work and his legacy is an exhaustive record of New York style.
Cunningham’s three main sources of photography come from the New York social scene where he chronicles high profile society events for the New York Times, street style, and photographing the collections at Fashion Week. Given his long career, Cunningham has an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion and can cite references to art and history when looking at clothes. This has sometimes caused controversy, such as when he points out that a designer is taking inspiration from (or indeed wholesale plagiarising) another designer.
He is still in pursuit of education and is an inspiration at 81, full of vitality and good humour. The child in him is evident despite his age – in one scene he jumps like a four year old when he manages to blow out all the candles on his birthday cake. However Cunningham is something of an enigma; few people know much about his personal life or his upbringing. When he is asked two tough questions by the filmmakers about his sexuality and his Catholic beliefs Cunningham seems overcome by emotion. He is so likeable and kind that it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing, as if we are prying too much into a fiercely private man’s life. Overall this is a must watch film for anyone interested in fashion, New York, and photography.