Review: Bill Cunningham New York [2010]

“The catwalk is on the street. Always has been, always will be.” Zeitgeist had no shortage of beautiful soundbites for a fitting trailer.

Bill is one of the most well-loved American fashion photographers. The film, directed by Richard Press, is a vivid documentary that rejoices in the dazzling world of fashion, featuring the infamous Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe – as well as celebrating the individual style of the most important people in fashion – the people who conjure and display their own style on the street.

He’s the man that brought us ‘Street Style’ photography – and, well, he pretty much invented it.  His New York Times guide is still part of the backbone of the paper’s world-respected cultural supplement.

Bill: a proponent of still life and the candid – yet always conspicuous in his work as a photographer (dressed neatly beneath his beloved french cagoule or simply – a bin bag – while cycling on what often looks like a fixie bike). Press does well to interview friends, buddies, subjects and adorers everywhere to depict the simple purity in his pursuit of carpe diem. Or… you know. La moment; zen, the here-‘n’-now. Bill, and Press by default, take a step back to not objectify but glorify the creativity of people and their clothes.

Without spoiling the film, from the outset it’s clear that Bill’s photography shapes the way we view fashion photography today. Richard Press shows this only subtlely, taking us to Bill’s flat (still tied to the notorious art collective at Carnergie Hall), his studio, his basement and finally to the desktop, where we find a long-suffering (but always empathetic and lunch-bearing) designer whose own perfectionsim, we learn, is gently challenged by Bill’s tenacity for the perfect picture spread.

And rightly so. For a man who is blissfully unaware of leaving gasps in the wake of his unbeatable work-ethic, it makes sense that Alpha Female Numero Uno, Anna Wintour, would say:”We all get dressed for Bill.”  She can’t be wrong. She’s editor of American Vogue magazine, ffs.That’s the magazine all the other Vogues try to pinch little snippets from. That’s the magazine that Vanity Fair has to battle with every single month – and through such competition, the filter-down of Bill’s NYT curation leads to competing society spreads which all aim to capture picture-perfect, lively images – and yeah, photos that are just like Bill’s.

All said society shots, party shots, the aftershow shots and in particular – the photos taken with the heaving, busy metropolitan city in the background are the ones which have changed the feel of glossy magazine – right around the world.

The fashion world, of course, adores its models – but they love the people who make this fantastical world possible, even more. It’s Bill who captures them on 35mm, and always with sheer joy.

And to the audience’s delight, the fashion world knows that Bill is at the heart of the creatives who make the fashion world “simply wonderful!”

The film is gorgeously shot, taking full advantage of the New York horizon lines and the glamour, the colours; the glamorous and colourful people, and everything that glitters – all of which inevitably fills Bill’s world.

Richard Press is keen to present the evanescence and pure curiosity of Bill which fires his work and arms him with a unique, almost innocent charm. A must-see documentary for fashionistas, aficionados and photographers everywhere.

Screening: March 2012 at The Black Lion gastropub cinema, Salford.

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