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Chronicles a man who is obsessively interested in only one thing,the pictures he takes that document the way people dress. The 80-year-old New York Times photographer has two columns in the paper's Style section, yet nobody knows who he is. Written by
Greetings again from the darkness. Well my fashion sense is limited to jeans, a t-shirt and tennis shoes. I would not be one's first choice to discuss the industry of fashion photography. However, that's not what this documentary is really about. Instead of focusing on the photographs of Bill Cunningham, director Richard Press shoots the man at work and in life ... the two being indistinguishable for Mr. Cunningham.
If you aren't familiar with his name, you are not alone. Bill Cunningham has a long running NY TIMES page where his photographs are displayed. He also has a feature called "On The Street", where he records commentary for his photographs - this can be heard on the website. Still, none of that tells you much about this man.
The film opens abruptly with video of Cunningham at work. He is alternatingly riding his bicycle and sprint-walking as he weaves through the sea of taxis and humanity in downtown Manhattan. His trusty camera is always around his neck as he continues his quest for fashion on the street ... fashion sense in the working people of the city. His eye is sharp and quick. We never know what he will hone in on. Maybe a never-before-seen winter coat, a flamboyant hat, or even a pair of heels that a woman is sporting. The man is over 80 years old and his eye and mind still quickly process what he deems worthy of notice.
Once again, none of those words do justice to this man or his story. He lives an incredibly humble life in a studio apartment within the confines of Carnegie Hall. Yes, as the film takes place, he is among the last of the remaining residents of the great hall. We learn management has determined that the few residents will be moved out of the building and relocated to other apartments nearby. We meet one of the other residents ... the fascinating "Duchesss of Carnegie", Editta Sherman. She has lived there for 60 years and it has been her home and photography studio. She made her living shooting celebrities and we catch a glimpse of her amazing work ... including a short video of her dancing in the 60's - filmed by Andy Warhol! Ms. Sherman's space is palatial compared to Cunningham's. His small studio apartment is crammed with metal file cabinets, each loaded with decades worth of photographs and negatives ... a real history of New York fashion. His bed is a twin mattress held up by books and crates - no kitchen, and a community bathroom. "Humble existence" is an understatement.
We learn from Mr. Cunningham that his work is divided into three parts: his street work, fashion shows, and charity events. He makes it clear that celebrities bore him and he is much more interested in how the everyday person uses fashion in their real life. Still, early on, we get comments from Vogue editor, Anna Wintour about how Cunningham's eye impacts the fashion world. She gives him much credit. We also get quickies from Tom Wolfe, Annie Flanders and even Brooke Astor to see how easily Cunningham fits in with the upper crust, despite his connection to the street. There is even a segment in Paris where he is honored by the French Order of Art and Letters ... and he "works" his own event! But it's the street where he is most at home. He says he is on his 29th bicycle ... the first 28 were stolen. He states this with the same enthusiasm that he shoots his subjects. The man is a constant smile and quick with banter, yet we learn just how alone he really is. When asked about his friends, family, lovers ... he momentarily breaks down only to regroup and express his love for what he does - it's not work, it's pleasure.
By the end, it's clear that while so many people respect the man and his work, no one really knows him. He lets his pictures stand as the testament to decades of documenting the colors and patterns and style of New Yorkers.
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