If you found yourself on the streets of New York between 1967 and 2016, you may have spotted a modest man cycling around the city, wearing a blue coat – the kind usually reserved for Parisian sanitation workers – and some old cameras around his neck. He may have even taken your photograph, were you dressed stylishly enough to capture his attention.
This man was Bill Cunningham, and despite his unassuming appearance, he was the most iconic fashion historian the world has ever known.
Cunningham’s life and career are documented in Mark Bozek’s new film, The Times of Bill Cunningham. Founded on a 1994 interview between the two – an interview that was meant to last ten minutes, but went on for hours – the documentary is an energetic celebration of a man whose singular passion and tireless work defined a nation’s perspective of fashion.
We immediately fall in love with Cunningham. Toted as “The Nostradamus of fashion and society”, he nevertheless embodies none of the pretense so common in the industry. With his unrestrained, toothy grin, and cheeky dismissal of his work’s value, he’s a charming subject whose love of fashion radiates off the screen. Add to that the details of his frugal lifestyle – when he travelled to Paris, he packed his clothes in plastic bags – and strict professionalism – he wouldn’t take so much as a glass of water if offered while he was working – and Cunningham’s appeal is clear to even those who don’t care for fashion half as much as he does.
The documentary opens by following Cunningham from his conservative childhood in Boston through his early success in New York as a milliner. Despite opposition from his family, he throws himself into his work, establishing a shop in a building that sees him neighbouring such stunning celebrities as Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, and Marlon Brando.
It was never the world of celebrity – a world of manufactured glitz and glamour – that interested him, however. While he adored a catwalk or exhibition, Cunningham’s true love was for the real deal: the fashion on the streets, and how what people were wearing mirrored social change. When he discovered the opportunity to put together a regular column for The New York Times, he grabbed it, and left fashion production for fashion documentation. While his nature is interesting, it’s this aspect of his career, and the philosophy that inspired it, that makes him truly unique. The Times of Bill Cunningham knows it. The film’s at its best when it focuses on the 50 years in which Cunningham “stole the shadows” of those who appeared in his lens.
His intimate connection with New York, and everything it stood for, is clear. There are moments when he holds back a tear at the thought of lost friends. And though he laughs about the two women who told him he “wasn’t a real photographer”, there’s a real sense he’s taken such words to heart, for he’s quick to humble himself throughout. That Bozek was able to capture this side of Cunningham is important, for it’s a reminder that, despite the fact Cunningham was defined by his work as much as anyone ever could be, he was far more than the photos he took.
These sad moments are fleeting, however, and after only a few moments Cunningham is back to his normal self. How could he not be? Here is a man who found love and joy in every moment of his professional life for almost 70 years. It’s all summed up in a single moment near the end of the film:
“What’s the hardest thing about your work?”, asks Bozek.
Cunningham doesn’t miss a beat.
The Times of Bill Cunningham screens March 9th and 10th
as part of ACMI’s Documentary Showcase.