“THE TIMES OF BILL CUNNINGHAM”— Remembering Bill Cunningham


Remembering Bill Cunningham

Amos Lassen

 Bill Cunningham was a one-of-a-kind fashion maven, compulsive photographer and an eccentric. He used to speed around New York City on a bicycle in his blue jacket (that became his trademark) and shoot pictures of street fashion for the New York Times Sunday Style page. He loved his job yet was extremely modest. Cunningham died in 2016. Mark Bozek’s documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” reminds us of who the man was. The film is  fun and filled with gossip. It is also sensitive and touching in parts.  

The documentary, I understand,  is based on an extensive interview from 1994. Sarah Jessica Parker narrates taking us back to Cunningham’s recalls his conservative Boston childhood, his escape to New York when he was 19, and the day he got his first camera. He lived in the studios above Carnegie Hall and was able to mix with the likes of Marlon Brando, Norman Mailer, Judy Garland, Brooke Astor, Babe Paley, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. His photograph’s capture New York City’s famous and everyday residents. 

Cunningham’s trademark self-deprecating gratitude is felt all through the film as she shares how much he loves both his city and his work. In a sense the film is Cunningham’s elegy and we see and have to accept that the days are gone when the New York Times Style section commanded attention. The city seems to be dealing with nagged by the sense that it has lost some of what made it special.  It was very different when Cunningham was on the streets and now we can see from where it has come.

Bozek combines archival interviews between him and Cunningham from 1994 along with many photographs of celebrities and regular New Yorkers. Cunningham’s humility and vulnerability shine through the film as he candidly shares about where his shyness comes from. His mother was shy; his father was outgoing. In a moment of poignancy, he gets very emotional and chokes back tears when talking about his friends who died of AIDS.

Cunningham would occasionally stop by a fashion show or a glitzy affair to take a few pictures of the latest haute couture styles. However, he was more in his element on the streets of New York, snapping photographs of passersby with one of his old-school Nikon cameras.  We hear about his early days as a milliner to his work with Chez Ninon on Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe to his time spent cataloguing the preparations for each of Diana Vreeland’s legendary exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. We see Cunningham’s legendary frugality, his shocking disinterest in his own wardrobe, and his cave-like apartment above Carnegie Hall.

“Cunningham’s smiley self-effacement belies his serious contemplation of fashion and its place in the world.” He saw himself not as an artist nor as a journalist but as a historian, a documenter of politics and social upheaval as reflected in the things people wear.

Cunningham covered New York’s pride marches, while largely avoiding any discussion about this. He was rumored to be gay but he said that whether or not he was, he never thought about it. His life seems to be devoid of romantic encounters.

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