From one Cunningham to another

I’ve been reading quite a lot of non-fiction at the moment – I’m in one of those moods where fiction isn’t working as well as it should be – and I decided to extend that to films too.

Bill Cunningham New York

I haven’t watched a lot of documentaries, but one of my all-time favourite films is a documentary (Life in a Day, which I wrote about here), and I’ve really enjoyed others like Stories We Tell and The September Issue. So I looked through an article on the best documentaries available on Netflix in the UK (this article, since you ask) and settled on a couple: Catfish and Bill Cunningham New York. Both were well-worth watching, but I’m not sure I have all that much to say about Catfish. All of my thoughts about it would hinge on whether or not it’s fake, and the internet jury seems to have remained out on that one. If any of y’all know the answer, lemme know.

But I did want to bring Bill Cunningham New York to your attention, if you don’t know about it, because it turned out to be rather lovely. It came out in 2010, when Bill Cunningham was 81 and still working full-time as the photographer for two pages in the New York Times – ‘On the Street’ (street fashion) and ‘Evening Hours’ (charity social events). With admirable restraint on the part of the director, Richard Press, the film largely skews towards looking at the former – which gives rather less opportunity for gratuitous shots of socialites, but is clearly where Cunningham’s passion lies.

I hadn’t heard of Cunningham before seeing his name in this list, but he is so extraordinary that a novelist would have to event him if he didn’t exist. For decades he has cycled the streets of New York, taking photos of everyday women, men, and dogs, and bringing together pictorial features on a certain trend that he sees a lot of – whether that be a colour, a style, or even people walking gingerly through piles of snow. He doesn’t use a digital camera, and still takes his films into a shop to be developed. His old-fashioned nature extends to manners: he believes all the people he photographs to be beautiful, and is horrified at the idea of using street photography to criticise others – indeed, he has resigned from magazines when they re-wrote his copy to mock.

You might expect Cunningham to be an aesthete himself. No such thing. He wears the same style of blue smock everyday – a cheap workman’s outfit. His apartment, in Carnegie Hall at the time of filming, is filled with ugly filing cabinets, with a bed lying alongside them. Cunningham’s one joy is other people and the clothes they wear.

Press’ documentary is not quite a hagiography, but it is refreshingly willing to allows its subject to be good. Only one prurient moment, asking about Cunningham’s relationships (he has had none) feels out of kilter with the tone of the piece; most of the time, the film looks at Cunningham’s unique work and place in the fashion industry. Interviewees include Anna Wintour (fun fact for fact fans: I lived next door to her son at Magdalen), Iris Apfel (soon to get her own documentary), and lots of people I hadn’t heard of from the fashion industry. Oh, and his neighbour – Editta Sherman, then a 96 year old photographer (who has since died, at the age of 101), who spent most of her time of film putting on hats and pouting at the camera or complaining that the documentary wasn’t about her instead. And she definitely warranted one.

The film is certainly celebratory, and it is rare to see somebody so completely nice and contented on film. At the same time, he remains rather distant from most people, and his past is still something of a mystery that the film didn’t exert much energy into uncovering. We see one or two snapshots of his youth, but hear very little about father or mother, or even how he sustains himself considering he refuses to accept money for jobs: he has a horror of being ‘owned’. A sub-plot (as it were) about Carnegie Hall residents being evicted is intriguing, but not particularly concluded – and certainly isn’t exploited in the sensationalist way it might have been in some hands.

Yet, somehow, a documentary that isn’t invasively curious about its subject works unexpectedly well. Bill Cunningham New York is interested in the man’s legacy and contribution to fashion and photography, and in one moment in time. It is rather joyful to watch, with enough poignancy to avoid being mawkish. I’d heartily recommend it.

And, now I’m on a documentary spree, I’d love some more recommendations. I’m intending to watch ActressFinding Vivian MaierDear Mr Watterson, and Life Itself at some point…

12 thoughts on “From one Cunningham to another

  • May 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    Hello, Simon.
    Try “Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf’s” and also “Monk With a Camera” which are fascinating.

    • May 28, 2015 at 11:41 pm

      I’ve not heard of those – thanks Susan!

  • May 28, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Oh! For a musical treat, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is an Oscar-winner about back-up singers. Amazing!

    • May 28, 2015 at 11:41 pm

      That one HAS been on my shortlist in my head – thanks!

  • May 28, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Those “ugly file cabinets” contain his entire life’s work. The hundreds of thousands of photographs and fashion ephemera they contain will most likely form a major collection on their own for an august institution such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fashion Institute. When the artist flats of Carnegie Hall were controversially converted for institutional use, Bill moved to a new flat nearby that would accommodate his extensive archives. He is wholly without desire for wealth or material possessions and though he is paid a salary by the Times, he lives an almost monastic simplicity. I was very fortunate to know Bill Cunningham in recent years when I was an intern at the Times and he is a completely selfless, kind, humble, and brilliant man. His personality and lifestyle are utterly unique in the world of fashion. He has turned down countless offers of higher paying jobs so he may continue his work just as he wishes it, without any obligation to be edited out of the context of his own vision. His Yankee upbringing as the son of working class parents in New Hampshire certainly added to his aversion to judging others unkindly and materialism. His eye for good design and originality, not to mention his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history over the last seven decades, is without equal and may never be seen again.
    At 96, Bill still works for the New York Times, and if you happen to walk down Madison or Fifth Avenue in the morning, you can sometimes see him in his signature blue smock either speeding by you on his bicycle or standing in the middle of a crosswalk snapping pictures of someone chic or creative. His work ethic is virtually super-human.
    Thank you for your lovely blog.

    • May 28, 2015 at 11:43 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment – it’s really lovely to hear from somebody who had the privilege of working with Bill Cunningham. And to know that he’s just as unique and wonderful a man in person as the documentary portrayed.

  • May 29, 2015 at 12:25 am

    I just looked through that list, and it’s really great. I loved almost all the documentaries on it that I’ve seen, so I’ll be adding some others to my list for sure. Lately, I’ve been enjoying documentaries more than fiction full-length movies, so more ideas are good!

    A few others that I didn’t think of when we were chatting on Twitter but that are on that list: Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, Man on Wire, and Queen of Versailles. (Blackfish and The Invisible War are also excellent but serious downers.)

    Grizzly Man and Helvetica are two more I loved that aren’t on that list, but that I’ve remembered since our conversation.

  • May 29, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    I saw “Finding Vivian Maier”. Excellent for artist/photography fans!

  • May 29, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    cunningham docu was one of my favorites….as u say…could have been mawkish etc, but they nailed it. i follow cunningham in the times now. what a delight.
    can also recommend vivian maier and 20 ft from stardom..and if u like motown music or even if not…there was wonderful docu on ‘the funk brothers’ who played allllll the music for motown for decades and are still at it…gentlemen like mr cunningham.
    thank u for all your reviews!

  • May 29, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    By all means watch Herb and Dorothy about the Vogels who collected all the art work in NYC and it is now in all 50 states of the USA. They are old, eccentric and the most important Art collectors in New York City. I should say we’re not are. Brilliant story.

  • June 2, 2015 at 1:01 am

    This sounds lovely! I second the recommendation for Queen of Versailles.

  • June 24, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    Cunningham documentary didn’t disappoint. Wonderful man who much like the people he photographed was far more inclined to focus on the creation rather than the creator!

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