Anyone who reads The New York Times Style section knows Bill Cunningham’s work. This sly, shy photographer follows the trends — baggy trousers or polka-dot dresses — for his “On the Street” collages and documents who’s who of high society for his “Evening Hours” photo spreads.
Famously reserved, Cunningham allowed himself to be filmed by director Richard Press and his partner, producer Philip Gefter, for this irresistible documentary “Bill Cunningham New York.”
“We wore him down,” Press said, laughing, in a recent phone interview. “I met Bill and knew him for a few months, and wanted to make a film about him. He laughed. Thought it was a ridiculous idea. Couldn’t entertain it. ‘Why me?’ he asked. ‘There’s no subject here.’ He kept putting us off.”
The filmmaker pressed on, though, thinking that maybe the man behind the camera needed to get used to being in front of it.
“After a while, he said, ‘Come back to the Times if you want to film me at work,’” Press said. “At the end of that day, he said, ‘Now you have your movie. You’re done.’”
But the film was just getting started. “My impetus was to show who Bill is as a person — his religious, obsessive relationship with his work. Once he agreed to be filmed, it was always a bit of a negotiation,” Press recalled. “He thought it would take a week, but it took almost a year.”
“Bill Cunningham New York” captures the infectious spirit of its subject, a man who is incorruptibly honest as well as extremely modest. It may be these qualities that allow him to move freely between high society, downtown hipsters and the fashionistas he photographs. The film captures the essence and flow of Cunningham’s life as he bikes around the city in his blue windbreaker, snapping candid shots on the street, or attending black-tie galas.
Press said he wanted to shoot the 82-year-old “as invisibly as possible” — the same surreptitious approach the photographer uses as he stalks and shoots his subjects.
One telling scene shows the photographer not identifying himself when he calls a camera store to arrange getting film being developed. At the beginning of the documentary, interviews with Anna Wintour and others who know Cunningham reveal that they don’t know anything about him.
Press deliberately constructed the film to reveal bits about Cunningham, just as Cunningham revealed bits of himself to Press and Gefter during the course of shooting. Thus, the documentary eschews the traditional “biopic” format of its subject’s childhood, education and experiences. This is part of what makes the film so engaging. Viewers are initially captivated by the character of Cunningham, and become more interested as the film unspools, especially when details emerge about his fight against eviction, or when he’s the only media personality invited to Brooke Astor’s 100th birthday party.
One early scene that Press especially appreciates involves Cunningham repairing his poncho. “I wanted to get him with his poncho. I sat waiting, and almost gave up. The next thing I know, he’s patching it and talking about it. This moment captures his sense of humor, his eccentricity, and his life force was in his smile. To me, it showed so much about him. It’s really a delicious moment where the audience bonds with him as a character.”
“Bill Cunningham New York” frequently follows the photographer on his bike as he darts around the city — at one point, amusingly, he runs into the back of a taxi while the camera keeps moving. Press said it was exhausting to keep up with him. “It was fun, but I was literally begging him to stop so I could take a break.”
For Cunningham, however, his life is his work and there are no breaks. “Every day, all day, it is all about the work,” Press insisted. “He doesn’t go out to dinner or a movie or a play. He would be at the Times at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He never published a book or had a show because it requires too much time and keeps him away from what he loves.”
The filmmaker recollects that getting the few personal photos of Cunningham from his past was “like pulling teeth,” but when he wanted an image of iconic model Carmen Dell’Orefice jumping a puddle, Cunningham knew when he shot the photo and what cabinet it was in.
“I gave him a list of the photos I wanted and he came through,” Press said, “but going into his archive was frustrating for him because he only wants to spend his time taking photos.”
The filmmaker described Cunningham as almost monastic in his dedication to his work. “He’s taken a vow of fashion,” Press joked. This comes across beautifully in the film, which is why it’s almost a shame when an off-camera Gefter asks Cunningham about sex and religion. The scene reveals the gentleman in Cunningham — he gets at the subtext, asking, “You want to know if I’m gay?!” — then shrewdly dodges the question. Cunningham, a regular churchgoer, takes an almost uncomfortably long time to respond to the query about religion. But the moment reveals his thoughtfulness.
Press defended this scene that seems to pry where the rest of the film simply observed. “We asked him about relationships — it’s what you would ask anybody. We wouldn’t have been doing due diligence if we’d not.”
This exchange is a minor flaw in an otherwise wonderful, celebratory portrait of the photographer who, the filmmaker said, will never see the film. “He has no intention of seeing it. He gave us his blessing.”