“If we all went out looking like a slob, like me, it’d be a pretty dreary world.”
LAST SUMMER I met an artist who, in the course of talking about movies, mentioned a film she thought I ought to see. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK. An odd title, and so I remembered it. A month or two later, the same recommendation from another person. New York City is a place I love, so I put it in my Netflix queue. I finally got around to watching it recently. It’s great.
Bill Cunningham, 83, is a fashion photographer for The New York Times, and has been for many years. He rides an ordinary bicycle through the streets of Manhattan, camera in hand, darting here and there, wearing a beat-up poncho on rainy days, on the lookout for fashionable clothes–clothes that fit a certain theme. A theme of the week. His pictures are featured on a page in the Style section of the Times–a page composed of dozens of Cunningham’s colorful, candid shots. Stylish, fashionable and/or eccentric New Yorkers as they dash across streets, glide past shop windows, or stroll around parks. One week it might be hats, while another week’s subject is stripes.
Bill is a gentle character but he’s fearless. Darting in and out of traffic, sometimes at night, unafraid to approach strangers who, I would guess, don’t always respond positively.
During the course of the movie, we are introduced to Bill’s home: a small apartment within Carnegie Hall, of all places. It’s rent controlled. Bill has been there many years and has accumulated file cabinets full of photos. The cabinets make a sort of headboard for his bed (actually, it’s more of a cot) . He doesn’t cook–he has no kitchen. His life is his work. Bill’s neighbor, a good friend, has resided in Carnegie Hall since about 1949. However, in the name of progress, or profits, these long-time residents will have to leave, and more lucrative tenants–business ones–have already begun to take over the building and pay much more.
It’s fun and a pleasure to spend some time getting to know a person who truly enjoys every minute of their work day, does their job well, and wants to do it with perfection (maybe aggravatingly so to one or two people). He’s a sweet, happy guy who, unlike his photographic subjects, dresses very inconspicuously. But he loves–and has always had deep appreciation for–fashion. And I think you’ll leave this film with a love for Bill, and a renewed sense of how if you can make your living doing something you love, it will never seem like work.
(BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK is widely available.)