Monday, May 23, 2011

Bill Cunningham, Could Be a Hero

Dear George,

It’s hard to believe, but last Thursday was the first time I’ve gone to a movie in the afternoon since I retired. Since I’m an inveterate movie-goer, you’d think I would have gotten around to this sooner. I went to the Esquire to see Bill Cunningham New York which was showing for its last day. I’m really glad I went.

Bill Cunningham is an 80-plus year old New York Times photographer. For four decades or more he’s gotten up each day, hopped on his bike, and made his way through midtown traffic to Fifth Avenue or other Manhattan locales to shoot photos of fashions that women are wearing on the street. Cunningham believes that the cutting edge of fashion is to be found, not in New York or Paris boutiques, but rather in the emerging styles that creative people wear in their daily lives. He’s completely absorbed in his quest, and he takes tons of photos, all recorded on film rather than with a digital camera.

Iris Apfel, Interior Designer and Fashion Icon

Cunningham’s street photos appear in a Sunday Times page called “On the Street”. He also does society fashion photos at night-time Manhattan parties and galas (“Evening Hours” in the Times). Based on comments of the many people who appear in the documentary, he appears to be loved and respected by members of high society and the fashion world. In one of the many touching scenes in the documentary he was awarded the title of Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

Eddita Sherman, Carnegie Hall Neighbor and Fellow Photographer, Age 96

The documentary centers on Bill Cunningham as a person. I would describe him as a shy, warm, often giggly man who is totally and unself-consciously absorbed in his craft. He’s very simple in his needs. He supplied photos to Women’s Wear Daily for years, but refused any payment because it would compromise his freedom and liberty. He’s totally obsessive. His room above Carnegie Hall (from which he was recently evicted) was completely filled with filing cabinets which hold every photograph and negative that he’d ever taken, with no bathroom or kitchen facility and only a makeshift bed supported by milk crates. He seems to own almost no material objects. His tiny wardrobe of clothing is hung from a filing cabinet’s drawers. Almost none of the interviewed people had ever seen his private space, nor did most know anything about his personal life. Toward the end of the movie he was asked by an interviewer if he’d ever had a romantic relationship. He smiled and asked if the interviewer wanted to know if he were gay. He said they never talked about such things in his family, so he’d never thought about it, though his family’s negativity about his obsession with fashion may have meant it was on their mind. He said he’s always been too busy to think about having a romantic relationship. The interviewer asked if he had friends, and he had to think for a moment, but he did say yes.

Patrick McDonald, Fashionista and Fashion Writer

There are a lot of reasons I liked the film so much. It’s about life in New York City. It’s about photography. It’s filled with a wide array of extraordinary characters, including Tom Wolf, Editta Sherman, Patrick McDonald, and Iris Apfel. But most of all, it shows a completely unique man in his 80’s who is emotionally engaged in his lifelong pursuits, loved by others, and fulfilled, happy, and successful in his mission. A really good role model. Everybody should see this film if they have an opportunity.



G-Mail Comments:

-JML (5-23): sounds like a winner, i'll netflix it. hey, i saw a show on tv a few nights ago called "extreme couponing". it's about ladies who have a coupon system that saves them tons of money. one lady bought $1000 dollars worth of groceries and only paid $21 with her coupons. anyway, thought of you and felt this would be a good hobby for you. see you soon, love justin

ps several times a day for the last week leo has said "we go to cincinnati and see nana?"

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