The Times of Bill Cunningham

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

My friends know that I have collected original photographs by famous photographers for more than 40 years. About a decade ago, I began donating curated collection to colleges, universities, and non-profits.

My donations reside in such locations as Savannah College of Art & Design, Ball State University, Monterey Peninsula College, with one long-ago promised to Yale University. You will also find them at The College of the Florida Keys, Key West Art & Historical Society, even Tropic Cinema (a Marilyn Monroe collection).

One of the photos donated to the Fashion Department of SCAD was by Bill Cunningham, a New York street photographer who shot fashion for The New York Times. He was an eccentric guy, often seen on his Schwinn bicycle snapping pictures. He lived up there in one of those ramshackle artists’ apartments that used to be found in the towers above Carnegie Hall.

So, you can imagine my delight when I learned that a new documentary called “The Times of Bill Cunningham” was showing as part of the Cinematheque Series at Tropic Cinema.

But wait! you say. The Tropic is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Well, yes and no.

You can catch a movie as part of Tropic Cinema’s VIRTUAL Cinematheque Series.

Tropic Cinema’s executive director Carla Turner tells us, “While we continue to find ways to stay connected during this time of social-distancing, we know there’s nothing quite like a big screen in a dark theater, where both friends and strangers experience the art of film together. We hope that time returns soon – but until it does, we need your support.

“For just $7 – $12, you can access select films from independent filmmakers and distributors. With these proceeds we can hit the ground running when we’re able to open.”

“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is one of several films you can access via this online venue. Others currently playing include “The Bookseller,” “Vitalina Varela,” and “Driveways.”

Simply go to the Tropic Cinema website and click on the Buy Ticket option.

Get used to the new normal in moviegoing … at least for now.

Yes, there was a 2010 documentary about Bill Cunningham. But this new 2018 film is told in the late photographer’s own words – based on a recently unearthed six-hour 1994 interview with him.

“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker (that quintessential New Yorker who starred in TV’s “Sex & the City”).

Along with the newly discovered narrative, the documentary features incredible photographs chosen from over 3 million previously unpublicized images by Cunningham.

William John “Bill” Cunningham Jr. was an American original. A Harvard University dropout, he started out designing women’s hats before writing about fashion for Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune. Then he picked up a camera.

For many years Cunningham served as the fashion and society photographer for The New York Times.

When he died, he left it behind a memoir titled “Fashion Climbing.” It was described as a “time capsule of a book,” and he was hailed as a “cool observer of the passing scene” akin to Andy Warhol.

Even The New York Times described him as “slightly touched in the head, in a kind and upbeat Forrest Gump sort of way.”

Truth is, he was never actually an “employee” of the newspaper. He provided his photographs of the fashions that people wore on the streets of New York to the paper for free. As he once said, “If they don’t pay me, they can’t fire me.”

“The Times of Bill Cunningham” was directed by Mark Bozek (“Dearly Beloved”). Bozek first worked with Barry Diller at the inception of Fox Television in 1988, where he was a three-time Emmy nominee for television new specials. Later he helped launch the QVC shopping network, then became Executive Vice President of HSN.

His earlier background was marketing director with a men’s and women’s apparel company, so he knows the nuances of fashion photography … even that by a wacky street photographer.

The New York Times said Bill Cunningham “turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore – stylishly, flamboyantly or just plain sensibly.”

Think of him as a keen-eyed Margaret Mead with a camera documenting the natives in a strange primitive land called New York City.

So, join the Tropic for a movie. As Carla says, “While we can’t meet up over popcorn and a glass of wine at the Tropic, we can still enjoy some of the best new independent film!”

Stream “The Times of Bill Cunningham” here and support the Tropic

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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