It’s no insult to say that the fine documentary Bill Cunningham New York resembles one of those minor profiles found in The New Yorker’s “Talk Of The Town” section: a slight, glancing, yet subtly wrought slice of New York life. And it seems likely that the exceedingly modest Cunningham would want it that way. It reportedly took director Richard Press eight years to convince the reticent New York Times fashion photographer to crawl out of his shell—and even then, he just comes out for a peek. A New York institution, Cunningham not only embodies the city’s spirit, he’s spent a lifetime reflecting it, practicing a form of street-level anthropology around what people wear. Now more than 80 years old, Cunningham still lives for his work, and still follows his routine of decades: zipping around the city on a bicycle (his 28th; he jokes that the last 27 were stolen), camera bag thrown over his signature blue jacket, picking up shots at street corners and fancy soirées.
Press details the fascinating turns of Cunningham’s life and career, and gathers affectionate interview footage from high-profile subjects like Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe, but his documentary is most charming and affecting when it reveals Cunningham’s everyday life. He’s one of the last artists to reside in a rent-controlled studio inside Carnegie Hall, and his life there is startlingly spartan: No kitchen, a bathroom down the hall, and little in his apartment but filing cabinets and a bed on crude planks. He’s also a lifetime bachelor, and what little he discloses about himself suggests a more intimate relationship with God than with any one person. Yet Cunningham’s monastic dedication to his features—“On The Street,” about ordinary New Yorkers, and “Evening Hours,” about star-filled parties and charity events—is shown as a source of real and enduring pleasure, not a life incomplete. Press honors Cunningham by giving his work the fullest possible appreciation, both in charting his career evolution (and the city’s fashion as a byproduct) and the day-to-day grind of putting his columns together. That’s where the joy in Cunningham’s life resides, and in spite of appearances, it doesn’t seem lacking.