Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York is a documentary about a topic that held very little promise for me—fashion photography. Fashion is just not something I care about, and I tend to think there’s something wrong with people who get caught up in it.

Yet the film to some extent won me over, because the gentleman at the center of it—Bill Cunningham—is so damn likable.

Cunningham was about 80 when he was filmed for this documentary, though there are also a decent number of clips of him from about twenty years earlier, evidently from some other project. He worked for Women’s Wear Daily and other publications for a time, but then spent the bulk of his career as a photographer and columnist for the New York Times. Actually before he had any involvement in photography or journalism he owned and operated his own hat shop. He was fascinated by clothing and fashion, especially women’s, starting in childhood.

He does three kinds of fashion photography. One, he goes to conventional fashion shows in New York and Paris and such—with the models coming down runways and all that. Two, he photographs celebrities and society folks in real life—at dances, charity events, walking down the street, etc. It’s not really paparazzi type stuff though, because his focus is wholly on the clothes and not the person. I mean, it matters at some level that they’re someone famous or “important,” but he’s not ambushing people, photographing them against their will when they look their worst or anything like that; he just wants to shoot what they’re wearing, and if it’s not something interesting to him he’ll pass entirely regardless of how famous they are.

And three, he photographs real people, non-celebrities, that he thinks are dressed in some particularly creative, expressive, unconventional manner. He’ll tool around Manhattan on his bicycle and park himself on a street corner for a good portion of the day, watching all the pedestrians go by and taking photos of whoever catches his eye.

Some of this—the second to some extent and definitely the third—are things that no one else was doing before he came along. Over the years he documented the advent of many new “looks”; often something got his attention in an “Ooh, that’s really interesting! I’ve never seen someone wearing that exuberant color combination with that kind of offbeat hat on top!” way, and soon enough it became a “thing” that seemingly everyone was doing.

Cunningham is a person who absolutely loves what he does for a living. It’s how he wants to spend his life. He speaks of it all with great enthusiasm.

He’s also a very positive guy, and principled in his way. He looks for the beauty and artistry in fashion, for what can be celebrated, whether it’s designed by a big name fashion designer and worn by a world famous model, or is something some ghetto youth came up with himself to strut around in. He wants nothing to do with any “worst dressed” list, or anything that holds celebrities up to ridicule for their fashion faux pas. He left Women’s Wear Daily over just this issue, when they used his photos in a snarky piece that offended him. He’s also super strict with himself about accepting anything from designers and clothiers and such that might bias his judgment.

He seems to be beloved by all who deal with him—other New York Times folks he works with, the people in the fashion world, the celebrities he photographs, the society people, etc. Everyone raves about what a great guy he is. One suspects there’s some amount of bullshitting there—there’s something to be said for staying on the right side of the guy who can make or break you by putting you in the Times—but like I say he seems pretty pure when it comes to not letting his decisions be influenced by whatever favorable treatment is given him.

Although he seems to be a very extroverted, social guy, the documentary interviewees consistently admit that they know next to nothing about his private life or about what kind of person he is when he isn’t in work mode. Several note that one can infer that he came from a wealthy background, given how easily and naturally he interacts as an equal with the rich and famous. But beyond that they are at a loss.

Toward the end, we do learn more about him. (So stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.)

First off, he didn’t come from any kind of wealthy background, despite the speculation. It sounds like he had a somewhat harsh upbringing, at the hands of parents who really didn’t understand or accept him, puzzled about, for instance, how someone could think that going into women’s hats was a suitable career for a grown man.

He is asked if he has ever been in love or ever had a serious relationship. He smiles and says, “Oh, you want to know if I’m gay.” Which is an interesting way to take the question. On the one hand, to me at least it really doesn’t have that implication. On the other hand, the gay question is one that readily came to mind for me as I watched the film. So I was wondering about it as kind of a follow up or later question, but I didn’t think it was what was meant by this question.

He’s certainly very gay in the old, literal, sense of cheerfully gliding through life loving every minute of it, and I suppose in the intended sense he’s at least modestly fruity acting.

But the more obvious trigger for the gay question, the bigger piece of evidence, is that he is in this line of work at all.

I wonder why it is that seemingly almost everyone in fashion—the designers, fashion photographers, fashion writers, or for that matter the audience for these things, the people in the general public who consume all this obsessively—are women or gay males? I mean, maybe people will be offended by my saying that, and insist that it’s just a demeaning stereotype or something, but whatever anecdotal evidence I’ve come across in my life, including in this film, leads me to believe that heterosexual males are a very small minority in this world.

But why? As I said, I tend to be pretty dismissive of this stuff as hopelessly trivial (though I suppose one could say the same about most human interests—like being a sports fan, for instance), but insofar as I can see the other side of that, one could interpret how a person dresses as potentially a form of art, of creative expression.

I had an eye opening conversation when I was very young that reminds me of this. I was speaking with one of my first girlfriends, and I made some offhand, disparaging comment about how wearing make-up was a pretty silly thing when you get right down to it, not to mention kind of contrary to feminism in how it constituted women succumbing to the pressure to conventionally and artificially pretty themselves up for men, and she explained how for her choosing her look each day was her way of expressing herself artistically, how picking the colors and lines and such that felt right to her was no different from painting a picture and trying to add some beauty to the world that way.

So, it’s plausible to categorize fashion and clothing choices not as always being what it typically seems to me to be (ways of showing off how much money you have and what you can afford, or showing off how knowledgeable you are about what the really cool people are supposed to wear these days), but as potentially an art like painting or sculpture or music or any other.

As such, as an outlet for creative, artistic expression, what’s inherently effeminate about that? Why would it be of interest to only women and girly men? I would guess that male artists in general are modestly disproportionately gay, but I don’t think of musicians and painters and the like as overwhelmingly gay (or female) the way fashion folks seem to be.

Cunningham even comments that no doubt that’s what concerned his family about his odd interest in clothes and women’s hats and such, that it just seemed disappointingly unmanly for a son. That doesn’t surprise me, but I doubt they would have reacted the same if he had shown an early inclination toward being a novelist, jazz musician, or nature photographer. I mean, I could see other artistic stuff like that seeming modestly suspect to conservative, mainstream, maybe religious parents, but there’s a substantial difference in degree in implied “gayness” compared to a few specific arts, like fashion. For some reason.

Anyway, even after he reinterprets the interviewer’s question into one about his being gay, he proceeds to avoid giving a direct answer. He says he’s never really had any kind of serious, intimate relationship, the implication being, I suppose, that therefore he’s not of any particular sexuality.

I don’t know if he’s also implying by that that he’s a virgin. Could be, but it’s also consistent with a person having only had a few brief flings that didn’t amount to much.

So one way to take his remark is that he’s more asexual than straight or gay, just one of those people with little if any sexual desire for either gender. But he then attributes his lack of such relationships instead to how he never had any time for that kind of thing.

And really you sense that his private life—not just dating or sex, but across the board—is not so much mysterious as non-existent. Because like I noted above, his work really is his life. He puts all his time, and his heart and soul, into his photography and writing about fashion.

There’s a whole—actually somewhat interesting—side plot about how he’s in danger of losing the rent-controlled apartment he has lived in for decades, and when he’s filmed looking at apartments he may have to move to, he comments that he sees the presence of a kitchen (his current apartment doesn’t have one) as a negative, as just some more useless space that has to be cleaned. He notes that he has never eaten a meal home in his life (hard to believe that’s literally true, especially if it includes his childhood), and he has no interest in starting now as an octogenarian.

But having one hundred percent of his meals in a restaurant or other public space is just another indication that he has no home life, no private life, to speak of, that his public self is his only self.

Fashion photographer isn’t some occupational role that he then steps out of when the work day is done to become family man, party animal, binge-watching TV addict, gay guy, straight guy, whatever; it’s him.

By the way, the apartment in question that he’s being pressured to leave is at Carnegie Hall of all places. I would have never pictured people living at Carnegie Hall, any more than at Yankee Stadium. But evidently the building that houses Carnegie Hall originally included multiple floors of apartments, which were not very expensive and often housed artists of various kinds (including some famous people over the years). By the time this documentary was shot, none of these apartments had been rented out in many years or decades, as evidently the people who own the building just let attrition gradually empty it out of tenants, converting the apartments as they came open to office space or something else that could be more profitable. Now it’s down to Cunningham and I think just two or three other folks—other aged, colorful artist types. And the Carnegie Hall owners have become impatient with these lingering tenants who are too inconsiderate to die already, and want them gone now.

This gives rise to some protests from supporters of the artists, including even local politicians, objecting to the notion of kicking these elderly folks out of the only home they’ve known for decades.

Cunningham doesn’t like it, but he’s too perpetually happy a fellow to let it phase him too much. His attitude is that it’s a sad and unfortunate thing and one that would upset him to think about, so let’s put off thinking about it for as long as possible. Like, it’ll be bad when I get kicked out, but I don’t want to stretch that bad out by having it also cover a long period of anticipation.

As I say, I got caught up in Cunningham and his story more than I expected, and I even felt somewhat more favorably disposed toward fashion as a result of spending this time with him and experiencing the ebullience with which he speaks of it. I may have even toyed with the notion of adding it to my long list of things to take more of an interest in and learn more about if I ever have any time to (as I commented in writing about the documentary Afternoon of a Faun recently that I could see opening myself up more to ballet if I ever get around to it).

Then a day or so after seeing this film I happened to pass by a TV where some flamboyant gay guy was beside himself with excitement over the latest female celebrity having “slayed it” or “broken the internet” by wearing this or that dress, and I realized that, nah, this shit really is the most trivial and silly of status seeking and implausible attempts to build meaningless convention up into something more than that.

So I liked Bill Cunningham New York somewhat, because I liked Bill Cunningham, but there’s no serious risk of my turning in my man card and becoming a fashion aficionado.

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