Tales of a skirt-chaser: On the radically democratic theory, and autocratic practice, of being Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham at work. (Richard Press and Zeitgeist Films.)
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Tom Scocca

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Maybe the most pleasing and arresting sight in the documentary Bill Cunningham New York is the spectacle of Bill Cunnigham not taking photographs. Cunningham is the roving—busily roving—New York Times photographer whose professional duties for decades have been divided between taking pictures of people attending the events generally construed to be "society events" and taking pictures of people out on the street to capture the clothing that they wear, which is generally construed to be "fashion."

He is so very busy, with this roaming, a gaunt and now very old man pedaling a bicycle uptown and downtown, and the layouts of his pictures in the Sunday Times are likewise so busy, it could almost be taken for undiscriminating or indiscriminate labor: one party after another; one hemline after another. In a way, the smiling old man cultivates that impression, snap snap snap with the camera, taking in the world. "You've got to stay on the street, and let the street tell you what it is," he says.

But mostly what Bill Cunningham does on the street is to choose not to take pictures of people. Cunningham discriminates all day long. Richard Press' film, which opens today at Film Forum, shows it most explicitly at a fashion show, where someone says that when Cunningham is uninterested in the clothing, he doesn't even lift his camera.

And then there he is, sitting right beside the runway, as the models walk, the camera unmoving. Not worth it.

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It's ruthless, made all the more ruthless by how genial and straightforward Cunningham is about his work. He's looking at the runway sincerely and quizzically; he just doesn't care about the things he's seeing. The social gesture of snapping pictures because all the other photographers are snapping pictures is beyond him and beneath him at the same time.

Likewise, in the film, he turns his back on the arrival of Catherine Deneuve at a Paris event. "She's not wearing anything interesting," he says. Or he recalls his earlier career as a milliner, half a century ago, when Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford bought his wares, but it didn't matter. "They weren't stylish," he says.

Cunningham's work falls in the territory where fashion becomes clothing, or vice versa. The fashion industry itself prefers to obfuscate how this works, how the decisions of designers, prepared seasons in advance, correspond somehow to the collective desires of the public to choose put on a particular style in the moment.

Cunningham blows away the smoke and mist, asking only, what do I see people wearing now?

Which people? The film recounts a dark moment, long ago, in Cunningham's career, when he submitted to Women's Wear Daily a set of photographs in pairs, matching a high-fashion runway shot with a picture of a woman wearing some part of the outfit out in the everyday world. The editors rewrote the captions to make fun of the ordinary women, and that was the end of his association with WWD.

The theory of Bill Cunningham is democratic and objective; the practice is autocratic and subjective. That is: he's a journalist, a real one. He imposes his sensibility on the world with severe neutrality.

Consider the streams of human beings on the sidewalks of New York. Nice Bill Cunningham doesn't care for what they are wearing, the overwhelming majority. He stands, searching, as the people flow by and flow by, and then—abruptly and unselfconsciously—the camera is up and he is loping or backpedaling through a crosswalk or crouching to get a shot of the single person and garment that matters to him. It is a literalization of the notion of "chasing skirts": the skirt is the thing that he is pursuing, and he goes after one like a cheetah after an antelope, running it down, capturing it.

Photography is an aggressive act, and especially street photography, as practiced by Cunningham, shooting people in public and without permission. He is humble and mild and self-effacing, and he spends his days puncturing the illusion of privacy in public—when people dress for the street, Cunningham's work says, they are making an impression, not an expression. Most but not all of New York, or the eye-catching part of New York, welcomes the attention. The socialites who sit and talk to the movie camera adore and are a little thrilled by the gentle violation it involves, the idea that they, or maybe their legs, might end up in the Times simply because they ventured out into the street where Cunningham was stalking.

On the other hand: "Don't take a picture of us," one of a pair of dressed-up girls, non-socialite, non-fashion-industry, snaps at Cunningham. "I'll break that fucking camera."

And so Bill Cunningham New York steers away from that boggy obviousness of so much contemporary documentary filmmaking. It is easy enough to imagine a perfectly charming, tedious movie about an eccentric character. Bill Cunningham has had 28 bicycles stolen from him, the press notes say, and sure enough, at some point, Cunningham tells someone or other that he is on his 29th bicycle, and the person is exactly as pleased and impressed at that little fact as any person should be: How funny! Who cares? It's already in the reviews.

But the filmmakers worked much harder than that. The documentary is the result of a decade of chipping away at the subject's reserve, to get a look into a life of such privacy that it barely looks like living. Cunningham's apartment, you may have heard, is a room above Carnegie Hall—artists' housing from which the last elderly artists are in the process of being evicted during the filming—and it is entirely filled with filing cabinets of photographs and negatives. Here, unlike the bicycle anecdote, is a fact that has to be seen to be appreciated: the camera squeezes in to find Cunningham's few items of clothing on wire hangers, hooked over the handles of file cabinets; it finds the pallet where he sleeps on the floor. It visits the cold-looking shared hallway bathroom, glancing into the shower stall.

"IF YOU DON'T TAKE MONEY," BILL CUNNINGHAM SAYS, "they can't tell you what to do, kid." Out of privation comes self-made privilege. He is better—more stylishly—dressed in his uniform of worn bright blue blue sweater or smock, khakis, and cheap poncho mended with tape than, say, Michael Kors in unvarying jeans and a blazer. He says it is essential to keep returning to Paris, because it "educates the eye." He sits in an unimpressive sidewalk cafe, taking heart pills from a New York Times office envelope. All he wants from anyone is to take his or her picture.

The filmmakers let the paradoxes do their own work. Witness footage of Cunningham at the 100th birthday party of his dear friend Brooke Astor—including a speech in her honor by her son, Anthony Marshall, in case the viewer was feeling too many pangs for the photographer and his life unblessed by wealth or family. Or there is Cunningham at a ceremony in France, held in his own honor, busily snapping photographs of the event guests, trying to move the center of attention away from himself, back to where he wants it.

But at last he is pinned down (literally, with a medal from the French Order of Arts and Letters on his blue smock), and he gives a halting, lovely speech in Franglais, winding up with a blurted manifesto about beauty. The implicit is caught and briefly made explicit, and it's moving and a little hard to bear.