Most films I love as films. Occasionally though, I love a film purely because of its subject. Bill Cunningham New York is just such a case. Before seeing this, Bill Cunningham the man was a stranger to me. I knew nothing about him. I didn’t know what he did, where he lived, or who his friends were. Having seen the film, I now can say I know something of Bill Cunningham. And it’s clear to me that to know Bill Cunningham is to love Bill Cunningham. Let me introduce him to you.
Bill Cunningham takes pictures. A New York fixture for more than fifty years, Cunningham now has a couple of regular columns in the New York Times. His “On the Street” column compiles photos that he has taken of regular people on the street. He has an eye for bold colors, flashy accessories, and trends in the making. In his “Evening Hours” column, he turns his lens on high society, attending the parties where he expects to find the most interestingly-dressed people.
Bill Cunningham sees the world around him. Cunningham has said he’s not a great photographer. And while that might be the case in some kind of overly technical sense, it has little to do with the opinions of the women he has photographed over and over again, nor with his astounding influence in the fashion world. At the end of the day, Cunningham has the fundamental element that every real photographer needs: the ability to see beyond himself and immerse himself in the world around him.
Bill Cunningham accepts people for who they are. The variety of people Bill photographs is one way this becomes clear. His photographs always place people in a good light. One fashionista interviewed in the film says that Bill has never printed a bad or mean-spirited photograph of anyone. In more than fifty years! Cunningham is driven by an underlying commitment to kindness and an acceptance of others no matter who they might be. Bill has no interest in honoring some kind of stratified society, easily eschewing parties hosted by kings and queens for a more “humble” gathering taking place at the same time. Cunningham finds interesting people wherever he goes, and it just so happens that they are often the lesser-knowns of our world.
Finally, Bill Cunningham seeks beauty. And he finds it. He finds beauty in the fashions of people on the street. He finds beauty at New York society parties night after night. He finds beauty on the fashion runways of New York and Paris. He finds beauty in his interactions with people of all kinds. And because he finds beauty, Bill Cunningham radiates beauty. He looks, to this eye, like a genuine human being, someone so fully engaged in life that his natural enthusiasm and joy cannot help to uplift the people around him.