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November 7, 2016

Bill Cunningham New York

by Franz Patrick


Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A fashion photographer for The New York Times, Bill Cunningham’s method (née William J. Cunningham) of taking pictures is, to say the least, unique. Every day, he steps onto the streets of New York City with his bike and scouts for people who wear clothing that strike him as different—clothes that make a statement about specific individuals that day and the essence of their personal styles.

Directed by Richard Press, “Bill Cunningham New York” is filled to the brim with optimism in connection to how a person’s passion is able to garner the respect of those around him, from the elite fashionistas to regular New Yorkers who are aware of the work he does. With each passing minute, the question is not how he is able to accomplish everything he does, especially considering his age, but how we can try to achieve that level of dedication in our own work and find happiness within it.

The style of the documentary matches Bill Cunningham’s effervescence. Although many interesting people are interviewed, like fashion icon Iris Apfel, fashionista Patrick McDonald, and photographer Editta Sherman, the statements are concise and eye-opening without sacrificing their off-kilter sense of humor.

A similar technique is used when Bill roams the streets in search of capturing clothes that are worth publishing. Fast cuts are abound; once a picture has been taken, it is onto the next crosswalk or corner—click, click, click. The synergy among the style of presentation, Bill’s dynamism, and NYC’s hustle and bustle make the film come alive. And then there are those who have no idea who he is (they probably thought he was just a creepy old man) and they are not afraid to tell him what they can do to his camera.

I enjoyed how the material answered my questions just after I formed them in my head. That is, what separates Bill Cunningham from those pesky paparazzi? One of the people being interviewed says his photographs are not used for cruelty. Specifically, he is adamant that his work is never used to ridicule or evaluate how a person lives his or her life. There is a fascinating story about the fallout between Bill and “Women’s Wear Daily.”

Amidst the infectious stream of positivity, there is a hint of real pain. I admired that the director dares to ask his subject about two things: his romantic life and religion. Although Bill is able to answer the questions, the emotions behind the implications of his words as well as the way his body tries to hide feelings of shame is a reminder that he is not all that different from you and me. Maybe he is so good at what he does in order to compensate for something else.

“Bill Cunningham New York,” like its subject, aims and succeeds in observing and capturing a lifestyle. It is cheerful and to the point. It gets us into the mood of stepping out into the sunshine and seek beauty for ourselves.

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