Friday, 8 July 2011

Passion for Fashion

Bill Cunningham "on the street". Photos: First Thought Films/ Zeitgeist Films

On my flight back from Vancouver to Hong Kong I watched a documentary I had read about called Bill Cunningham New York. It's a portrait about a man in his early 80s who is still working very hard for The New York Times both as a society photographer and for his column called "On the Street". It's the latter one that I enjoy seeing on The New York Times website every week where he narrates a video featuring a slideshow of his photographs of people on the street.

Cunningham is a social anthropologist, dedicated to capturing what people are wearing, how they interpret fashion on their own terms. He describes young people as "kids" and loves using the word "marvelous" a lot. But he knows his stuff, as he used to be a milliner when he was young, creating fancy hats.

He isn't interested in what he says is cookie-cutter fashion, where everyone wears the same thing -- he is more interested in those who dare to strut their stuff, putting together striking outfits or accessories, He seems to have no trouble finding stylish people, as he rides around town on his bike toting his 35mm manual SLR camera. He will shoot anyone he thinks has the look, from African Americans in fedoras, women walking gingerly in high heels in the rain, to drag queens.

Anything stylish catches Bill's eye come rain or shine
And they in turn are so thrilled to be photographed by Cunningham. "We all get dressed for Bill," says Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. She described it was like death if he didn't photograph you. He wasn't interested in shooting celebrities just because of who they were -- he was more interested in what they were wearing which makes him such a purist in the fashion sense.

Despite being surrounded by glitz and glamour, Cunningham leads a simple honest life. He himself is not fashionable -- he seems to wear a lot of blue, particularly a blue workman shirt he gets from Paris when he covers the shows there. He explains it's because the buttons of regular shirts get worn down from him hanging the camera around his neck so the thicker workman shirts are perfect. He even wears it while accepting a cultural award from the French government and making his acceptance speech in broken French.

He lived for a long time in Carnegie Hall until he and his neighbours were evicted in 2009 during the filming of the documentary. His apartment was filled with filing cabinets -- full of negatives of the pictures he took, or magazines of his published work. His bed? A mattress on the floor with a pillow.

While every other photographer has gone digital, he uses film
What was also interesting was that Cunningham felt religion was a necessary guide for life and attends church regularly. He was asked point blank by the interviewer if he had homosexual relations which he denied. He also shunned lavish meals and preferred simple diner food instead.

Director Richard Press used to work at The New York Times and in his director's statement he explains it took him 10 years to make this film -- eight years to persuade Cunningham to make the documentary then two years to shoot and edit it. Press and his small crew tried hard to respect their subject's boundaries but at the same time tried to be as discreet as him as they followed him photographing people on the street.

The end result reveals Cunningham's pragmatism, wit and honesty, making him such an endearing character. His dedication to his work shows how much he loves fashion and feels the need to record its ongoing evolution.

In the end I gained even more admiration for him and what he's trying to do. For an 80 year old to continue riding bikes on New York streets and photographing strangers is already amazing. And then to see his endless fascination for style is even more inspiring.

He shows that we can all be young at heart and strive to be who we really want to be.

To watch the trailer of Bill Cunningham New York go here.

No comments:

Post a Comment