We See Chick Flicks: “Bill Cunningham New York”

Starring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Annette de la Renta, Iris Apfel, Tom Wolf, Kim Hastreiter, Patrick McDonald, Michael Kors

I know a woman whose life possibly peaked when she was snapped by The Sartorialist. Me? I’m gunning to catch the eye of Bill Cunningham from The New York Times’s Sunday Style section, who has been photographing street style since Scott Schumann and Garance Doré were but eggs in their mothers’ wombs. Bill Cunningham, who turned 80 while the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” was being filmed, dropped out of Harvard in the late 1940s and began working as a milliner, making hats for New York City’s elite. Then a friend handed him a camera and Bill’s eye for style bloomed. Now he’s the beloved street style photographer — a cultural anthropologist, really — for the Times. As someone — perhaps Anna Wintour — says in “Bill Cunningham New York,” while everyone else who works in fashion is standing inside the tents during Fashion Week snapping pics of celebrities, Bill Cunningham is outside on the sidewalk taking photographs of the regular people.

Having looked at the street style pics in Bill Cunningham’s section of the Sunday Styles section for, oh, a decade now, I always assumed he just took a bunch of pics haphazardly and chose the best ones to publish. No. Bill is constantly on foot or on his bicycle photographing the men and women of New York City. Some of his subjects recognize him (especially style icons like Anna Wintour, Annette de la Renta, Patrick McDonald and Iris Apfel) and will stop to pose for a photo. But the overwhelming majority of his subjects probably don’t realize they’ve been photographed by a NY Times photographer as they’re caught in the moment walking over a pothole. Although stylish celebrities sometimes end up on the page, it’s obvious the truly stylish women Bill Cunningham most adores are the ones aren’t getting free clothes from stylists. (Bill himself owns only a few different shirts and pants that are French sanitation worker uniforms, which he washes himself at the laundromat.)

The most touching parts of the documentary to me were Bill’s interactions with the art department. Each Sunday, he has a set space in the newspaper to fill (in journalism we call this a “news hole”) and watching how he gets there is a treat. He develops untold rolls of film and looks at each photograph, choosing the ones which might be right for his page. Then, with a very patient member of the art department sitting by his side, he mixes and matches the photographs until he’s found his great collage. Sometimes a certain person is the focus, sometimes there’s a theme — capes! cerulean blue! fedoras! — but sometime he just pics the photos he likes.

I’ve always considered The New York Times a rather elitist newspaper and nowhere is that more present than in their Style section. As much as I love reading the section, I have no chance in hell of buying a $200 T-shirt trilled about in its pages, let alone the new Chloé handbag advertised on them, so my reading is “windowshopping-only.” But Bill Cunningham, as personalized in this doc, absolutely turns that elitism on its head. He’s from a working-class background, a veteran, and lives such a spare lifestyle he’s almost monastic. Bill has no interest in good food or hobnobbing at parties; he is single and lives alone, sleeping on a cot in a room full of filing cabinets filled with his photos. My real love for Bill blossomed when he talked about doing photography projects for magazines like Paper and Details and flat-out refusing to accept payment for his work so he would never be beholden to anyone else. That is principled.

The Verdict: I loved, loved, loved “Bill Cunningham New York” — as someone who loves street style and cultural anthropology, as someone who works in journalism, as someone who appreciates tales of “how the sausage gets made,” and as someone with a place in her heart for eccentrics. You’ll probably love the documentary, too, if any of this appeals to you. There’s truly no reason you shouldn’t walk out of “Bill Cunningham New York” feeling upbeat.

Although “Bill Cunningham New York” is not a mainstream documentary (like a Michael Moore doc, for example), it’s playing all over the country — yup, even in Nebaska, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Idaho — mostly at small, independent theaters and art museums. You can find showings of “Bill Cunningham New York” here! And remember: the best fashion show is always on the street.

[Zeitgeist Films: Bill Cunningham New York]