Undressing New York Times 'On the Street' photographer Bill Cunningham

May 21, 2011

Bill Cunningham, facing down a deadline, eggs himself on with the line ‘let’s get snapping and cracking’.  Tthe photographer at work is the subject of the new documentary Bill Cunningham New York now at the Music Box.

I’m a long-standing, (okay, rabid) fan of Cunningham’s New York Times column On The Street. It first appeared in print, and though Cunningham himself apparently isn’t fond of it, the audio slide-show version of the print edition is a gift to devotees.  Cunningham's voice - in all its quavery, enthusiastic glory – underscores his at once precise and spontaneous style. 

Cunningham’s beat is street style – which he calls the best fashion.  Blogs dedicated to street level fashionistas have been all-the-rage for awhile.  You can check out some Chicago sites here and here.

This one is an especially nice match to Cunningham's sensibility! And if you'd rather not wait for someone else to capture your street cred, take your own pics and share them here on Flickr.

But Cunningham’s the granddaddy of the trend; his first column appeared in the 70s.

His tools of the trade are simple - a Nikon, some Fuji 400 color negative film, and a classic Schwinn bicycle. But they work.  And by staying out there and letting the streets ‘speak to him’, Cunningham spots new styles emerging long before fashion editors at glossy magazines ever get their paws on them.

But what I learned most from the film is the journalistic integrity behind Cunningham’s column.

In addition to the streets, he shoots high society events – though he chooses those events based on the worthiness of the cause, not the guest list. In fact he refuses food, drinks, or even a glass of water while on those jobs.  He's driven by - and obsessed with - surfaces and commodities of the highest order: clothes. And yet, he never treats his subjects as commodities, and he tends to shun celebrity driven fashion.

Early on Cunningham worked for free, saying ‘if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.’  And the pleasure in his pursuits is palpable. But while that commitment is admirable, it also can be a bit alienating. Does anyone else live like this - could anyone else? Or is it the culture at large that's the real oddball, chasing after celebrity? 

Maybe that’s what led director Richard Press to probe Cunningham’s sexual orientation and religious leanings - what's the heart that drives this singular pursuit?  In response to those questions Cunningham first laughs, then parries, then appears shattered.  And to what end? For me it’s the only misstep in what’s otherwise a great ride into the world of Bill Cunningham.