Getting to know Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham at work

I have a confession to make. I'm a Bill-a-holic. I can't start the weekend without first checking out legendary photographer Bill Cunningham's column of street fashion on the New York Times website. If I miss his latest pictures for some reason, I feel like something's off, like I've misplaced some piece of vital information that is my fashion touchstone for the week.

I'm especially addicted to his "On the Street" audio slideshows. When I press play and the cool, man-about-town theme music reaches my ears, I'm transported to the streets of New York. His distinctive voice makes me happy. Former Los Angeles Times photographer Iris Schneider, who met Cunningham when she was freelancing in NYC, says you can almost hear the twinkle in his eye. "I'd say he sounds like an upper-crust leprechaun," she says. "There is an upper-crust polish straight out of Sutton Place, but he's got an infectious lilt that is totally his own."

Cunningham also chronicles New York society parties in his weekly "Evening Hours" column, but fashion is his love. A ladies' hat designer in his younger days (he's now in his 80s), Cunningham has been documenting fashion trends in New York and Paris since the mid 1960's — for Women's Wear Daily and Details Magazine as well as the Times. Not merely a reporter, Cunningham is a fashion historian and anthropologist, detailing shifting styles and eras of fashion. He photographs everyone from society matrons in Chanel to kids showing off the latest trend in t-shirts, if he thinks they're interesting. Subjects who make the cut are usually thrilled. "We all get dressed for Bill," says Vogue editor Anna Wintour, part of the sartorial royalty that respects Cunningham's fashion eye. Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, is another fan.

As someone who has shot a bit of street fashion, I marvel at how easy Cunningham makes it look. Shooting street fashion is not easy. First you have to spot someone who's wearing something interesting. Then it's about getting just the right angle, in the right light, at just the right moment (and that's when your subjects are cooperating.) Cunningham has the advantage of hunting his subjects in the highly compressed geography of Manhattan. On any given day, hundreds of fashionistas parade before his camera. But Cunningham isn't interested in just the well-dressed. He's looking for men and women who think creatively with their clothing. That's the stuff that really excites him.

And get this: This 80-something photographer gets around New York's wild streets on a bicycle, day and night. He's on at least his 29th bike. The others have been stolen.

Every weekend it's a treat for me to see what he comes up with. In the early 1980's, Cunningham was pursuing one of his favorite recurring themes: women dressed all in black. Susan Hagen, a friend of mine who is an L.A. fashion designer, turned up by surprise in Cunningham's column. She didn't even know she had been photographed. "I was shopping fabrics for my collection and spending time with my friend who is always in the chicest designer looks," she recalls. "She wore a tangerine Azzadine Alaia mini and I wore my own design, a midcalf tube dress, head to toe black. It was a warm spring day and we were walking all over Soho." I saw Susan's picture in the paper and called to tell her; the news made her day.

Cunningham likes to show complete outfits, but he's also a genius at zeroing in on the details. One of my favorite columns was a picture page entirely of cameos, everything from pins on a woman's jacket lapel to buttons on a blouse. Looking at those pictures, you would have sworn that cameos were the most important fashion statement in NYC that week. (And if anybody has that page, I would love to see it again.)

Cunningham in the New York Times newsroom.

In addition to his admirers n the fashion world, I've learned that Cunningham's co-workers at the Times are fans too. NYT staff photographer Monica Almeida told me that "running into Bill at the office is always a treat. He is the quintessential gentleman, with a quick smile and a gracious 'hello dear' — when he's not standing over the light table completely engrossed in editing his film. He is the most prolific photographer on staff. He makes it look so effortless, he is truly amazing."

As I've followed Cunningham's work through the years, I've developed a growing curiosity about him as a person. What kind of photographer rides around on a bicycle, year after year? What drives his enthusiasm for fashion? For a long time I've wondered what makes Bill Cunningham tick.

I've finally gotten some answers in the form of a new documentary. Bill Cunningham New York will screen at the Nuart Theatre for one week starting March 25. It took producer Philip Gefter and filmmaker Richard Press ten years to convince Cunningham to cooperate and to get the 88-minute film made. Gefter was a picture editor at the NYT when he got to know the intensely private photographer. They follow him through his workday, go home with him (he lives alone), and tag along on a trip to Paris for Fashion Week.

I don't want to review the film or spoil it for anyone. I do want to say that I ate up every moment. Seeing it is like savoring an extended DVD version of "On the Street" with special features. I took in everything they showed about his obsession and how he lives. But any artist who pursues a subject so obsessively has complex motivations held deep inside. There are a few heartbreaking moments in the film that convince me Cunningham is driven by something he will never completely disclose. That's OK. It's enough to take what this wonderful film has to offer and then continue tuning into "On the Street" each week for as long as Cunningham wants to keep doing it.

Film trailer:

Photos: Zeitgeist Films

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