Bill Cunningham can’t be bought. He is there to observe and to take pictures, not to consume the fancy meal or mingle with the celebrities; a line which most individuals in his position would most likely blur. Bill has a section of the Sunday New York Times Style section where he will point out a new clothing trend he sees on the streets, what people were wearing at a recent evening gala, or just profile an interesting looking person. I used to skip over this section every week; however, now that I know about Bill from the excellent documentary Bill Cunningham New York, I will never skip over this section again.
Even though Bill is now 80 years old, he still dons his signature blue jacket every day and rides his bicycle all over Manhattan searching and taking pictures. If it is raining, he will duct tape a garbage bag over his shirt. He is searching for interesting clothing and it does not matter if a celebrity is wearing them or not. A major separation between Bill and other photographers is he is just fine not taking a celebrity picture; he does not care at all about a person’s fame level, just in their choice of clothing.
Because of this, Bill is usually the first to notice a new trend. While frequenting street corners, crosswalks, and the outside of department stores, he will immediately stop his bike (sometimes in the middle of traffic) to snap a few shots. During the first week of August, he happened to notice that a lot of New Yorkers were wearing black and made that his column’s focus. Bill has become a celebrity on his bicycle as he cruises the streets and there are many influential people, who Bill could care less about, who crave his attention. Richard Press has mixed in interviews from Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, and other very powerful people in the fashion industry into his film. They, like many others, would take time out of their busy day to find out what Bill knows.
Even though he has the power to affect clothing trends, until very recently, Bill lived in Carnegie Hall as one of the few remaining visual artist tenants before the final lot of them were evicted to new premises. He slept on a cot in what could be described as closet space surrounded by dozens of file cabinets containing his life’s work. If Bill thinks he has seen something before, he is pretty sure he can go back and find it. One example is of a designer who revealed a new collection only for Bill to find a 1972 photo montage of an eerily similar line.
Bill Cunningham New York is a documentary I was not eager to see because I assumed it was just about the fashion world. I was completely wrong. It is not about fashion; it is just about Bill and his routine — two things that are completely absorbing and make this perhaps the best documentary of the year. Interestingly, it is also the second documentary this year dealing with the New York Times released just before Page One: Inside the New York Times. Now that I have seen them both, there is a reason the story on Bill Cunningham is on the short list of 15 documentaries which are eligible for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar. And if it happens to win, it will not matter very much to Bill. He will be doing what he does every day: Riding his bicycle to find the next interesting pair of shoes.