SINCE THE LATE '70s, weekly photo collages of what people are wearing on the streets of New York have been a highlight in the pages of the New York Times. Many New Yorkers are acutely aware of the author of these photos: a wiry octogenarian snapping away at passersby in a cheap poncho when it rains, and a no-nonsense blue jacket when it shines. This is Bill Cunningham, the subject of Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary about the artist whose life's work is as much cultural anthropology as it is fashion, providing an intimate introduction to those who less frequently pass by his lens.
Behind the byline is a remarkable, solitary figure who, rather shockingly, lived until very recently in a tiny, Spartan studio above Carnegie Hall, lined floor to ceiling with file cabinets filled with negatives. The bathroom was down the hall, and the bed a crude wooden construct on milk crates. (A subplot of the film is about the ousting of the eccentric longtime residents above the legendary performance hall, who were relocated, Cunningham included, to nearby apartments soon after filming wrapped.) This barebones lifestyle is self-inflicted, we learn, as Cunningham repeatedly denounces wastefulness, once while repairing one of his rain ponchos with tape. It's also in contrast to his extensive chronicling of New York society, where he attends nightly fundraiser galas but refuses even so much as a glass of water from the hosts.
Bill Cunningham has elements of unexpected darkness. Cunningham hangs his head and pauses at length before sidestepping questions about his sexuality, casting sadness on his tireless drive to work and almost self-flagellating refusal of creature comfort. Although he's widely adored, Cunningham seems deprived of intimacy, forcing a distance between his own life and the beauty he obsessively documents. As anticipated as such a film would regardless be by his fans, this added emotional illumination successfully elevates it to a piece that will forever influence the way one perceives Cunningham's work.