Bill Cunningham New York

September 19, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York is out on DVD, and you can also find it on Netflix Instant. It’s a documentary about Bill Cunningham, the On the Street photographer for the New York Times, who also has been shooting society events and fashion shows since the couture era.

The 80-something Cunningham lives a monastic life: he spent fifty years in a studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, the walls of which were lined with filing cabinets full of photographs. Indeed, the apartment had no other features besides filing cabinets of photographs: the bathroom was down the hall, and the bed was simply a bedroll on top of some plywood on top of some filing cabinets.

Cunningham simply lives clothes. Every morning, he puts on his trademark work smock (he buys them in bulk for $20 each at a hardware store in Paris), pulls his bike out of a janitor’s closet in his building, and hits the street, documenting the beauty around him. If you’ve ever watched one of his slideshows for, you know that his eye is informed and discerning, but also gloriously enthusiastic, democratic and non-judgemental. Follow his work for a month and you’ll see society doyennes, drag queens, Harlem teenagers and everything in between.

Then, at night, he puts on an orange safety vest and pedals to charity benefits – he refuses to look at guest lists and picks solely based on what he thinks of the charity, and he won’t eat or even drink their food. He simply documents, documents, documents.

The film is so filled with inspiration, it almost boils over. Cunningham’s beautiful, half-French, half-English speech as he is inducted into the French Order of Arts & Letters is not to be missed. “Seek beauty, and you’ll find it.”

The movie touches upon Cunningham the man, as well. He is, as he admits, both garrulous and open and fiercely guarded. We tried to book him for season one of our show and were turned down flat – the documentarians, friends of his, worked for years to convince him to participate. He goes to mass every week, and has never had a romantic relationship.

If, like me, you’re turned off by the fashion industry, Cunningham may restore your faith in its possibilities. He’s questioned about whether fashion matters, whether he should have dedicated his life dealing with the “real problems” of the “real world.” Our clothes, he says, are our armor: that which gives us the strength to engage the world instead of shrinking from it. He’s a man who believes, really, in beauty. His sincerity and open heart are absolutely magical.

Seriously: watch the film.