I recently watched the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, a film by Richard Press. At the time of the documentary (2011) Bill was a photographer for The New York Times. He had 2 columns:
In Evening Hours he photographed and reported on charities and charity events, touching on the social, philanthropic, and political world in New York.
In On the Street he documented trends in street fashion, showing how people dressed in New York. He would ride his bicycle around the streets of New York all day looking for any clothing that caught his eye.
I know this has little if anything to do with outdoor, landscape, or wildlife photography. But I think it’s valuable to learn about other forms of photography, or other forms of art, and about the artists who practice them. So I read books and watch documentaries about other artists and photographers. And I think this documentary is worth watching, even if you have no interest in New York or street fashion. Bill Cunningham was a fascinating person, a very kind, and good natured person, who seemed able to smile through almost anything. I loved watching his work ethic. Photographing street style in New York was his life, it’s all he did, all he wanted to do.
Bill was so humble he didn’t consider what he did photography. Referring to himself, he said, “It’s not photography. I mean any real photographer would say he’s a fraud. Well they’re right. I’m just about capturing what I see and documenting what I see.” He was over 80 years old and still working for The New York Times, riding his bicycle, photographing fashion. He was a perfect example of the saying, “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And Bill Cunningham considered what he did fun. He was playing, not working.
He was a very down to earth person, both in personality and in what he photographed. He preferred street style, clothing people actually wore on the street. If he was at a fashion show and saw a model wearing something only a model could wear, he would put down his camera and not photograph that outfit.
Bill was also more interested in photographing the clothing than the person wearing the clothing. Most of those he photographed were just normal people he found on the street. And yet, he did photograph and get to know some very well known people, some of whom appear in the documentary:
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine
Annette de la Renta, philanthropist and socialite, widow of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta
Iris Apfel, New York style icon
Annie Flanders, founding editor of Details magazine
Anna Piaggi, fashion columnist for Italian Vogue
Fashion was Bill’s life, and yet you would never know it by looking at what he wore, what he “drove”, what or where he ate, or where he lived. Bill liked very utilitarian clothing, almost always wearing a blue worker’s jacket because it was cheap, had plenty of useful pockets, and was easy to replace. He didn’t own a car, but got around town on his bicycle, which had been given to him when his previous bicycle was stolen. He loved inexpensive meals in down to earth eateries. He lived cheaply in a very small studio above Carnegie Hall. His room was filled with filing cabinets containing all his old negatives. He hung his clothes from the handles on the filing cabinets, and slept on a small cot in front of a row of filing cabinets. His studio was his home, and it didn’t even have its own bathroom; he had to share the bathroom in the hallway.
During the documentary he visits some of the other artists who were still residing in the Carnegie Hall Studios. Editta Sherman, 96 years old at the time of filming, had lived there for over 60 years and was good friends with Bill. But they all had to contemplate finding new places to live when the landlords decided it would be best to convert the old artist studios to more modern business offices. Even during this time Bill seemed to keep his smile and good nature.
Bill liked to periodically go back to Paris, France. He felt it was a center of world fashion and a great place to re-educate the eye. He felt Fashion Week in Paris was exceptional. And it would appear Paris thought the same of him. Didier Grumbach, the President of the French Federation of Couture, on behalf of the Minister of Culture, decorated Bill an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters, an honor meant to recognize contributors to the arts and literature. Examples of other Officers of the Order include Elton John, Shahrukh Khan, Tim Burton, Faye Dunaway, and Michael Keaton, among others.
Grumbach said of Bill, “He doesn’t want to be honored. He doesn’t want anything. And I’m amazed he accepted tonight. […] Very deeply I think he doesn’t believe he deserves it. That’s why he deserves it.”
There are so many potential takeaways from this documentary:
Find a way to do what you enjoy, or find a way to enjoy what you do. Life is too short, we should all be able to find a little joy in it.
Stay humble. If you manage to find success don’t let it go to your head. Stay grounded.
Continue to practice. It doesn’t matter how good you become at what you do there’s always more to learn and room for growth. Be a life-long learner.
Treat people well. There’s no need to put people down or ridicule their sense of style, personality, art or vision. Accept people for who they are and treat them as equals.
Have integrity. Don’t cave in to things that go against your sense of ethics or morality.
What else did you get from watching the film?
Watch the trailer for Bill Cunningham New York:
After watching the documentary I learned Bill Cunningham died in Manhattan on June 25, 2016. He was 87 years old. In an article about Bill Cunningham in The New York Times I learned the city thought well enough of him that in 2009 he was designated a living landmark.
For more information about Bill Cunningham New York check out Zeitgeist Films.
If you have the opportunity, go pick up a copy, or see if it’s available on any of the services you belong to. Watch Bill Cunningham New York and let me know what you think of it.