I recently watched the documentary Bill Cunningham: New York. It is an interesting look at an 80-year-old fashion and society photographer who works for the New York Times. The one thing that struck me most about this film was the amount of contradictions that abound in Mr. Cunningham’s professional life. I will discuss some of these contradictions below.
To begin with, he is essentially a dinosaur in a digital world. As seen in the film, he still shoots on film, has his film developed at the corner bodega, edits his pictures using a negative magnifier and grease pencil and dictates the layout of his spreads to the editorial staff, so that they can create his vision on the computer. He also rides a bicycle everywhere and refuses all food and drinks while he is reporting. His working style is quite old-fashioned but it is pure. The world around him has changed but he has photographed the same way in New York and Paris for the past 40 years. He can’t be bought and it makes what he captures on film that much more interesting. It’s simply his distinct point of view without a lot of outside influence. In fact, at one point he says, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do kid.” This specifically refers to the paychecks that he used to receive from Details Magazine. He would get his paychecks there and take them into the boss’ office to make a show of ripping them up. That is essentially the style of Bill Cunningham. He does whatever he pleases and it appears like he is adored for it.
His personal style is very strong. He manages to fulfill two out of the three style rules in almost every shot he takes. They are visual and subject matter. His visual style is one of photographs in the candid manner. His candid photographs of people are usually shot from the hip or from below. His subject matter is also part of his personal style in that he is really interested in photographing clothes on the street and not necessarily the people wearing them. He doesn’t look for trends; instead he waits for the trends to appear to him. He actually doesn’t believe that his photography is about his subjective point of view. He says, “It isn’t really what I think, it’s what I see.”
Interestingly enough, this ties back into a contradiction about his life. He lives the most simple life possible; in an artist’s studio in Carnegie Hall where he sleeps on a cot and shares a bathroom and kitchen down the hall. It’s a contradiction because he spends the majority of his time photographing celebrities and rich individuals. This is mainly because he shoots two layouts for the New York Times, one deals with the social scene and the other spread shows up to the minute street fashion. Bill Cunningham wears roughly the same outfit every single day (khakis and a blue smock) but there he is at the most important galas photographing the Rockefeller family and Brooke Astor. He truly sees the same level of beauty in these socialites that he does in bag women on the streets. His unimpressed attitude is probably the main reason that people like Vogue editor Anna Wintour like him. He’s not desperate to get into their exclusive world, he actually shuns it. He would rather stand on the sidelines and capture these moments with his camera than join them at their events.
It also appears like Bill Cunningham is difficult to work with because he seems to be a perfectionist and he actually doesn’t like to have the camera turned on himself. Both of these things are present in a few scenes of the movie. The young man at the New York Times who helps Mr. Cunningham create his layouts on the computer is often fazed by the hours that Mr. Cunningham wants to spend moving each picture around until they are all “perfect.” He also gets cross with the documentary film team more than once because he doesn’t want them to constantly follow him or shoot something important. This is especially ironic considering that Bill Cunningham’s style could be called documentary. He often chases people down the street to take their pictures, he never asks permission to take awkward photographs of things like women in short skirts and his pictures often violate the rules of personal space. In the film a woman named Kim Hasreiter says, “He’s like a war photographer in that he’ll do anything for the shot.” His style could be compared to Garry Winogrand because they both take candid photos of women on the street. He doesn’t like the documentary film team intruding on certain parts of his life but his own pictures often feel intrusive.
Another interesting contradiction in the life of Bill Cunningham is that he doesn’t really believe he is a good photographer. He thinks he is just having fun. I bet he is having fun but I believe that his photographs have visual merit.
To begin with, this white/black fashion shoot is one of my favorites of his early pictures. This photograph definitely displays the Gestalt law of similarity. The shoes, tights and skirts are similar enough that we see them as the same pattern, shape, texture and size.
His street photography often features the principle of the 3rd effect but with dozens of photographs. This layout of women carrying a very similar black bag is an example of this. One or two shots of black bags wouldn’t have the same effect as 20. It helps the reader see the prominence of these bags around town but it also helps the reader draw comparisons between the women, their style and the manner in which they carry these very similar bags.
I also believe that his pictures show an understanding of composition. For instance this layout of pictures of people wearing trench coats is nice. I see representations of the rule of thirds, patterns, decisive moment, scale and layering in these photos. Overall his pictures might not be classic art photography but he does a great job of capturing the history of New York street fashion and he does it on the move, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do as a photographer.
Bill Cunningham is a true original that has carved out a niche for himself in the world of photography. I liked this quirky and sweet documentary and would recommend it to anyone who likes New York, fashion, photography or documentaries.