Anyone who knows me face-to-face knows that I’m as far from a fashionista as it is possible to be. I dress for comfort, wearing the same sets of clothing week after week: cords/jeans, knit top, and usually a sweater, in a color range chiefly confined to black, brown, blues, and greens. But recently I watched a film on fashion photographer Bill Cunningham which touched me deeply: Bill Cunningham New York (directed by Richard Press, 2010).
For over 30 years, Bill Cunningham has produced the weekly New York Times feature “On the Street.” As the title suggests, Cunningham’s work chronicles in photographs the street life of the great city, typically organized around a common sartorial theme. Each week’s theme arises naturally out of Cunningham’s observations, something that suddenly seems omnipresent to his trained but impartial eye: things such as a particular T-shirt graphic, a certain color, a distinctive style of shoe that everyone seems to be wearing.
While his subjects include fashionistas, celebrities, and socialites, Cunningham’s lens makes no distinctions of class. His modus operendi is to simply photograph whomever happens to strike his eye, whether rich or poor or in-between, whether flamboyant cross-dressers or “ordinary” people going about their daily affairs.
“Self-effacing” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when speaking of the fashion world, yet that is how Bill Cunningham comes across as the documentary’s crew follows him on his daily rounds, an impression that is only reinforced by the film’s direct interviews. Self-effacing not in the usual sense, which implies a degree of self-consciously holding back, but naturally so. His existence, in fact, strikes me as downright monastic.
At the beginning of the film, Cunningham lives alone in a tiny little closet of a room jammed full of file cabinets containing archival negatives and magazines, his only personal space a bookshelf or two and a small bed. (By the end of the film he has moved into somewhat larger digs because the building’s owner has decided to convert the old apartments into office space.) Every morning he gets up to ride his bicycle through the streets in search of people to photograph, a mode of transit which allows him the optimum mobility for navigating the city and the optimum flexibility to stop and shoot whomever happens to catch his eye. Unlike his subjects, Cunningham’s dress reflects the same monastic traits of simplicity and self-effacement as his living quarters and means of transportation: typically attired in casual pants and a smock-like blue jacket.
Like the true monk who has found his vocation, Cunningham exhibits unadulterated joy. His existence is focused solely on celebrating others with no concern for self. His delight in fashion comes from his delight in noting the ways that people express themselves artistically and aesthetically through their clothing; there is not the least trace of snobbishness in his attitude. With true wisdom, he says that for many of his subjects, clothing is their “armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” Near the end of the film, he states: “He who seeks beauty will find it.” That is his mission in life and quite obviously the source of his great joy.
Equally at home among socialites, gender-bending cross-dressers, and ordinary folk on the street, Cunningham looks to find beauty in every person; like the Biblical Creator who delights in creation, Cunningham seems to delight in every person he sees or meets, joyous to proclaim that “it is good.”
Early on, Cunningham displayed a strong sense of ethics. When the magazine he worked for in the 1960s took the photographs he had made of ordinary women wearing designer clothes as an occasion for mockery, he quit in indignation. Mockery was the exact opposite of his intent, which was fueled by fascination with the way that women in “ordinary,” middle-class circumstances would adapt the runway creations of designers to the needs of their own lives and the expression of their own individuality.
Towards the end of the film, the interviewer asks Cunningham about religion, and we discover that he attends Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. When asked whether religion is an important component of his life, Cunningham takes his time thinking it through before he finally says, “It’s a good guidance in my life. It’s something I need.”
Bill Cunningham’s life exemplifies a true sanctity and love for others, a joyous exuberance, and love for the world. Here’s to him!