The late Bill Cunningham, under the guise of janitor’s clothes, was a superhero and powerful force in The New York Times Style section. The documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” is a fine companion piece to “Bill Cunningham: New York,” filmed ten years ago. Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, this film is breezy and affectionate.
Cunningham was born into a Boston Catholic family. His mother was a homemaker and his father worked in the post office. As a boy, Cunningham was distracted by fashion, specifically hats. He got a job in the ad department of Bonwit Teller, but wanted something more. Bonwit asked him to go to New York. Once there, his imagination ignited with visions of hats. After the war, he got a job as a milliner or hat-maker, using an upstairs apartment to make his hats. Cunningham worked at Howard Johnson’s. He secured a position at the high end boutique Chez Ninon, striking a deal with Nona Parks and Sophie Shonnard to sell his hats to celebrities, much to the dismay of Bonwit.
Then, he was given his first Olympus point and shoot camera. Cunningham met Diana Vreeland and his life changed; he started going to parties.
Cunningham lived for the pedestrian life of New York. He documented everything. But what truly sparked his creativity was fashion, not just runway fashion but the wardrobe of the every day. In December of 1978, he noticed an older woman in a nutria coat, Greta Garbo. He snapped a photo and Cunningham’s Times page was born.
For over 40 years, Cunningham ran the On the Street column. He prefers to be invisible, known to refuse even a glass of water at events. He eschews personal fashion, wearing his blue jacket and before that, hand me downs from friends. What excites him is not celebrity but the way clothes drape the human body. To him fashion is a mirror of society, its emotions and motivations, its wishes and its apprehensions.
Fashion is the pulse of any city.
The photographer often feels guilty taking pictures, thinking he is stealing their shadow. But Cunningham is driven and cycles by invariably unnoticed. One pedestrian mistook him for a pickpocket.
One gets the feeling that, like any hero, Cunningham carries a great burden. When asked by director Mark Bozek whether he witnesses anything sad in the city, Cunningham suddenly starts to cry. Many of his friends are living ghosts and he can also divine like an empath, the city’s sadnesses as well as its unstoppable sense of joie de vivre.
In this current documentary by Bozek, Bill Cunningham hovers right before our eyes, a genuine hero with a great up-bubbling smile.
Cunningham had the ability to melt through society’s high walls and float onto any street corner, as deftly as an X-Man. Cunningham lived in a small apartment at Carnegie Hall with roommate Editta Sherman. He slept on a single cot among his hundreds of negatives. The world and the city is was enriched by the click of his camera and the passage of his bicycle, one single streamer of blue along the sidewalks of Gotham.
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org