Bill Cunningham, a self-described fashion historian, never thought of himself as the subject of any of his photographs. Almost everyone who knew him would disagree.
Mark Bozek called Cunningham “an institution” of New York, fashion, and the photography world. Bozek’s directorial debut, The Times of Bill Cunningham, screened for the first time at the New York Film Festival last Thursday.
The film offers a glimpse at some of the three million unpublished photographs Cunningham took over his lifetime, whether out of personal interest or for his Style pages at The New York Times. At its core is a nearly four-hour long interview Bozek conducted in 1994 at Cunningham’s Carnegie Hall apartment.
The interview was meant to last ten minutes. But in a rare turn of events, the reserved Cunningham opened up. This may be attributed to Bozek’s willingness to shut up and record. A skill Cunningham himself thought was of vital importance to his craft. At the time, Bozek had been producing television news specials for the newly formed Fox Television.
Now, the footage offers a closer look at the hilarious, passionate, and deeply affectionate man behind the camera. Bozek began working on his film in 2016, after Cunningham died at the age of 87. A 2010 film, Bill Cunningham New York, previously attempted to capture the elusive photographer. It showed him biking around New York and living frugally in his studio, interspersed with touching interviews from his close friends, colleagues, and subjects. In it, Cunningham lays out his philosophy on fashion.
“…the point is in fact that fashion, ah, you know, in point of fact it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
The Bozek documentary, only 75 minutes long, does much of the same. But viewers not only hear the funny stories about accusations of pick-pocketing, wearing dead men’s clothes to meet the Duke of Windsor, and disses of Katherine Hepburn. They also witness an emotional Cunningham, in tears while describing the immense loss during the AIDS crisis. This includes the death of his friend and neighbor, the talented fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez. When not photographing for work, Cunningham covered every Gay Pride parade, leaving thousands of heartwarming and stylish photographs of queer people in his massive archives.
The film is overlaid with upbeat violin music by Ezinma and ends with “Tonight, Josephine” by supermodel Pat Cleveland. Sarah Jessica Parker narrates.
It is a moving portrait of a person dedicated to their life’s work. Cunningham wanted to know what real people were wearing and so he took to the streets. He did not care who was wearing the pieces that caught his eye. His unawareness that he had photographed the media-evasive Greta Garbo says as much. Cunningham was far more interested in the nutria fur coat she wore that day.
He wished to avoid attention himself, which he believed would interrupt his ability to capture candid photographs. But Cunningham’s knack for distilling fashion currents through his 27 year long On The Street section, won him awards, adoration, and media attention. One can find dozens of later photographs of Cunningham dodging reporters on his bike while wearing his signature blue jacket-khakis-black-shoes uniform.
Is documenting Cunningham’s life the best way to honor his legacy? He saw himself as an ardent fashion historian. Has he now become just a part of that history? Would he rather have viewers of The Times of Bill Cunningham get on their own bikes, grab their own trusty cameras, and go document the everyday fashion of the world he left behind?
Because even in his own unpublished memoir, Fashion Climbing, recently discovered by his family, Cunningham focuses on the hats he created as a milliner before taking up photojournalism. It was the fashion and style itself that deserved attention in his mind. His access to it was a secondary privilege, and he sought to document everything he loved while he could. And his wicked sense of humor pervaded his work. He liked to stand on particularly slippery streets in the wintertime, taking action shots of people falling on the ice. Or wait for steam from subway grates lifted women’s skirts on summer days. He even had a volume of actual pickpockets at work, caught in the act by his skillful eye.
In the lengthy interview with Bozek, Cunningham describes the world he inhabited with unfettered glee:
“It was marvelous,” he muses over and over again.