Bill Cunningham New York

by Anna Shornikova

A curios documentary about an 80-year-old street photographer shows the insides of his everyday life. Bill Cunningham New York is a 2010 American documentary film directed by Richard Press. The action revolves around a simple, unpretentious and ever-smiling Bill Cunningham, a person of outstanding talent, yet leading a modest life. 

The film illustrates the everyday routine of a street-fashion photographer as it is. Throughout the film, it becomes habitual to see Bill riding his bicycle and taking quick snaps of people on the crossroads. The plot doesn’t have an aim to tell the story of Bill Cunningham as a boring biography but reveals the life events through interviews with his models and Bill himself. There is no voiceover that narrates monotonously about the occurring events, but the dynamic music that complements the colourful life of the photographer. It unobtrusively shows the story of Bill, the significant and breaking points in his career through old photos and reminiscences. We follow Bill through his day in New York, see his interaction with his old friends, models and colleagues, see him working during formal events and fashion shows, chasing him down in Paris and accompany him while he chooses a new flat. The whole film is imbued with street-fashion photos, numerous old albums and memories of different people from the street that became famous because of Bill’s snapshots. An outgoing demeanour of Bill and an easy atmosphere wins one’s favour even if one is not interested in fashion shows and designer dresses. Whereas it is all about fashion, it goes beyond it and shows us a man that loves his work and sees no need for self-enrichment. The film caught a piece of New York’s life, showed the changes in trends and people’s tastes through Bill’s camera. And that is all about the ingenuity of Cunningham’s job, his precious talent to show and shape the street style.  

The documentary provides trustworthy historical information, supported by interviews and written records. The visual is also wisely chosen allowing the audience to see Bill as if in motion, without the stage effect. Interviews are very relaxed and sincere, always full of genuine smiles and affection for the starring photographer. It is evident that Bill is not a fan of attention, but is ready to share his outlook on life, his view on fashion and his work. And his humble opinion about himself is also proven by his behaviour during street photo sessions and work on formal parties and ceremonies. 

Watching this smiling gentleman, obsessed with his job, not wanting all the riches of the fashion world, you understand that it is one of the rare cases when a man is really happy in his work, lucky to find the path in life. It makes you cheerful and attached to Bill’s story. The whole film crew also couldn’t resist Bill’s charm as the documentary is filled with little jokes and humour, definitely not making the film tedious. 

There are a lot of wise thoughts and peculiar themes brought up in the documentary, but the viewer can see a clear message from the photographer. And as a concluding point, here is the quote from Bill Cunningham that describes subtly the purpose of his job: “Fashion is an armour to survive the everyday life.” 

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