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Film Review

Bill Cunningham New York

A film about a fashion photographer for the New York Times hardly seems like material for a compelling and fascinating documentary, but Richard Press, the director, has created just that: "Bill Cunningham New York." The film opens with Bill Cunningham leaving his apartment and biking around Manhattan. He is 82 years old, tall, thin, and riding through often heavy traffic, around taxis, and stopping to shoot candid photos or on his way to assignments. Cunningham produces two weekly photo columns, "On the Street" and "Evening Hours", both published in the Sunday edition. Press followed Cunningham for two years, videoing him as he shot others. Although Cunningham is the center of the film, there is a cast of interesting, articulate, sometimes famous, and sometimes wildly eccentric people who know him, such as Patrick MacDonald, the Dandy, who is himself unforgettable.

Although Cunningham covers society benefits and fashion shows, his passion is his candid street photography, the subject of "On the Street". He waits at a corner, and shoots ordinary women walking by. But these women have a fine sense of style, often presaging design trends. One column will have women in bold checkered pants, or unusual jackets, or high boots, each week united by a common theme. He says "I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you've got to stay out there and see what it is." He observes that people are the least self conscious when in the rain or ploughing through snow, so some of his most iconic shots are of women wading through slush. None of his shots are mocking, and in fact, many years ago he resigned from his job at WWD because they added mocking titles to some of his photos. A particularly interesting sequence shows him assembling his photos at the Times for his column, shifting images to develop a display rhythm. Another wonderful sequence shows the birthday party that the Times throws for him.

Cunningham lives an unbelievably ascetic life: for many years living in a very tiny apartment, intended for artists, in the Carnegie Hall building, without a kitchen, and sharing a community bathroom. The apartment is filled with his files. He has to move because Carnegie Hall is evicting its last remaining residents, including his once famous friend, Editta Sherman, a celebrity photographer, who has an immensely charming appearance in the film. With the exception of a tux for formal events that he covers, Cunningham hardly has any clothes. His standard outfit is a blue work jacket with many pockets, worn by Parisian street sweepers, that he buys for about $20. His favorite food is a $3 egg and sausage sandwich in a nearby diner. He is very well known and loved in the fashion world. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, says "We all dress for Bill," Annette de la Renta speaks of him with obvious affection and respect, and even Tom Wolfe talks about Cunningham's work. Harold Koda, the head costume curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has much to say about Cunningham's influence.

Despite his often rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, and his obvious talents as a photographer, Cunningham is modest, self effacing, exuberant, and determined to be independent. He initially refused money for his work. His philosophy is "If you don't take their money, they can't tell you what to do." This even extends to the benefits that he covers, never eating or drinking at those events. He is so bursting with energy and positive thoughts, that he puts most of us to shame. He is remarkable for the best of reasons. Press has given us a beautifully done look at a man who seems nearly unique in his passion for truly observing and documenting. His photography is literally his life, and by the end of the film we all care deeply about him and his craft. I loved this film, it is so rich, without a slow moment, and regret that I didn't do this review two weeks ago when I first saw it. "Bill Cunningham New York" will surely be an Academy nomination for best documentary. Still playing at the Embarcadero and should be seen on the big screen.

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