Bill Cunningham New York, the impressive feature debut from director Richard Press, may well be the best documentary ever made about a photographer. That the photographer documents New York, for the New York Times Style section and other outlets, makes this one of the great films about New York, all the more important as it captures a dying world.
Cunningham was one of the last holdouts in the artists’ apartments above Carnegie Hall, whose legendary tenants over the years included Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein. This scene was further documented in the documentary Lost Bohemia, but BCNY gives the viewer a wistful glance at the corporate carnage at work all over the city: the wide open sapce that was once dance studio of Agnes DeMille (choreographer of Oklahoma and other milestones of American Musical Theater) has been recently broken up into telemarketer’s cubicles.
“If you can’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.” This is Cunningham’s response to the greedy metropolis, and though he collects a paycheck from The Old Grey Lady, his early work capturing the Downtown '80s scene for Details magazine was largely gratis - and frequently earned him 100-page special issues solely of his work. The octagenarian photographer has documented New York fashion trends for decades - from haute couture runways to the New York gala scene. But it’s not money that draws his voracious lens (“I eat with my eyes,” he tells a waiter who offers him a plate at a gala). The artist finds what people are wearing on the street just as important, even more so.
A photographer who seeks out fashion trends might seem to be judge and jury, but while Cunningham makes aesthetic decisions, he has a fondness for all his subjects. Socialite Annette de la Renta admiringly notes, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill.” Cunningham in fact had a falling out with Women’s Wear Daily when they changed his copy to make fun of the subjects.