I watched the documentary film about photographer Bill Cunningham yesterday. It’s set in New York City and follows him through the streets as he dodges yellow taxis on his rickety old bike. Although Bill works for the New York Times and influences the NY’s top socialites, [Anna Wintour famously quoted that 'we all get dressed for Bill'] – it becomes apparent very early on that he does it because he loves taking pictures. He doesn’t do it for any other reason.
Every morning you see him get up out of his tiny apartment, get on his broken down bike and put his camera around his neck. He wears the same coat every day, one he’s had for years that he mends daily with duct-tape, and off he goes, catching the real heart of NY through his lens . He snaps girls in the rain, cross-dressing men, old ladies with crazy jellewery, girls in flowery dresses, girls with massive heels, brightly coloured umbrellas, boys with their skateboards. He snaps it all, and with it, sets the trends without even knowing it.
He has an eye for detail, being able to attend the important fashion shows and having had a long history of photography (and keeping all the negatives in drawers) he can spot if a designer has copied something. He will only take pictures of things he likes. Women stop in the street in the hope he’ll take one of them but he won’t if it’s not interesting. He receives thousands of invitations by post each day, with the hosts practically begging him to attend the most important balls and award ceremonies in the whole of NY. They even send their impressive guest-lists in the hope this will sway him, but he doesn’t care about that, he cares about clothes.
The most fascinating part of it all, was that he never accepted money for his photography. After a unfortunate run in with Women’s Wear Daily, where they used his photos changing the copy to speak badly of the women, he left and since then would not take money, food or drinks at any function he attended. He was taking photos of the women because he thought they looked amazing, not because he thought they should be used in magazines. At 80 years old, he still cycles from one venue to another, without accepting food, drink or money. He says: ‘if they don’t pay you, they can’t tell you what to do”.
This film is really inspiring, as you get a glimpse of how the fashion circles in NY are very much focused on possessions. However, Bill manages to avoid this materialistic lifestyle completely, even though he has such a huge influence on it. The two extremes are so interesting to see, he is documenting the lives of the rich and famous, but they need him even though he is practically penniless. When entering a Paris Fashion Show, he nearly wasn’t allowed in until one of the doormen immediately realised who he was and named him ‘the most important person in the world’.
.. and this film also made me have a slight obsession with Iris Apfel.
Watch the trailer here