The film is titled simply, Bill Cunningham New York. My wife and I wanted to see this when it was here in the theaters, but that was around the time I was getting quite sick and we missed it. I finally got around to seeing it this weekend, courtesy of Netflix and Roku. I might add that, quite by accident, we saw, just a few days earlier, The September Issue, about the making of, um, the September issue of Vogue in 2008 (at the same time this film was being put together). The September Issue is also an interesting film. But it is a perfect warm-up for the movie about Bill Cunningham, and if you haven’t seen either, I recommend you try watching them both, in that order.
Anyway, we loved the film. I loved it. I mean, I loved it, or more accurately, the film made me love Bill Cunningham and his work.
Cunningham is, of course, a famous photographer, but that says almost nothing. I knew his name and a little about him and his work.
But, as the movie shows, he’s a very special case. He’s not famous for a one master photograph, or a handful of master photographs. You can’t get any idea of Cunningham’s work as a photographer at all without seeing dozens and dozens of his photographs. It’s easy to do now. (Check out the recent piece titled “Flirty,” about shoes.)
As he himself puts it, he photographs clothes, what people are wearing. Not celebrities. He doesn’t go to movies, watch television, listen to the radio or read the news, so he admits, he doesn’t know who the celebs are, at least not the ones outside the world of fashion. “I’m not interested in the celebrities with their free clothing,” he jokes as he’s being given an award by the French Ministry of Culture. He’s just interested in the clothing. And it’s not any one photo of his that matters, it’s the collection — tens of thousands of photos, surely — and the ways that they illuminate one another. The point isn’t one photo of a woman wearing purple scarves: it’s two dozen photos of women wearing purple scarves.
He’s sometimes called a street photographer, because so much of his work has been done on the streets of New York. But he’s not a street photographer. He’s a clothing photographer. He stands on the street because that’s the best place to catch a lot of interesting people wearing clothes. He’s like a grizzly bear looking for fish. The bear isn’t interested in the river or the rapids. The bear stands where he stands because he’s interested in catching fish.
Cunningham transcends technique or perhaps it would be better to say that he finesses it. He’s a photographer not because he loves photography, but because he loves something else. He’s not trying to say something with his camera. The camera to him is just a tool. Nothing in the film gave me the impression that he cares very much about the craft of photography. I don’t mean that in a critical way at all. On the contrary, I say it with great admiration and even a bit of envy. I don’t mean that he’s not a good photographer; that would be worse than absurd, it would be untrue. It’s just that he seems to take photos the way Mozart wrote notes, in a hurry and with the guidance of genius.
Cunningham gets around on a bike and shoots on the move, so he travels light: a simple camera, a single lens, and, when he’s shooting indoors, a single flash (hot-shoe mounted or more often held in his left hand while he shoots). That’s it. He started his career in “social photography” covering a “be-in” (“What’s a be-in?” he asked his editor as he got the assignment.) Relating the story later, he jokes that, although the visual appeal of the hippies was all about color, his photos are all black and white because he couldn’t afford color film or processing. (I can relate. I didn’t start doing color myself until the 1980s.)
Personally, the man is very impressive. Aside from the fact that he doesn’t live in a monastery, it’s almost literally true to say that he lives like a monk. For decades he lived and slept in his tiny office above Carnegie Hall: nothing but filing cabinets for photos, and a mattress on the floor. No kitchen, no bathroom. (“Who wants a kitchen and a bathroom?”) No wife or partner or children, and apparently very few close friends — just work. But he isn’t lonely, as far as I could tell.
And his life is not empty. He lives to work, every day, all day. It’s all he does, all he has done for decades, and it’s all he wants to do. His energy is unbelievable. Watching him work wore me out. He’s a good man. Nobody doesn’t like him. He goes to church every week. He comments on how difficult it is to be an honest man in New York City: “like being Don Quixote.”
The most famous definition of the orator in the ancient Roman world came from Cato the Elder. An orator, Cato said, is vir bonus, dicendi perítus, “A good man, skilled at speaking.” It’s a richer definition than it sounds like us today, perhaps because we know so little about either goodness or oratory that it’s difficult for us to see what they have to do with one another. Well, Cunningham is a vir bonus, spectandi perítus, “A good man, skilled at looking.” That’s what he does with his camera. He looks—constantly, intensely, and with focus and interest and love. And what is he looking for, I mean, besides interesting clothing? He is shy about it, but it’s clear what it is. It’s beauty. And his example is inspirational. Receiving that award in Paris in 2008, he said (with a catch in his throat), “It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty, will find it.”
What higher aspiration can there be? Watching him work, and learning about his religious dedication, I was reminded of the famous monastic saying, laborare est orare, “To work is to pray.” For Cunningham, that seems to be the case. And if photography had saints… Well, Cunningham’s still alive, so I won’t canonize him just yet. Deo gratias.