Bill Cunningham remains an enigma in NYC

by Morgan Denno

Photographer Bill Cunningham takes a shot of an unaware subject on the crowded New York City street on his bike. Bored by the world of fashion photography, Bill takes to the streets for photos of everyday people, Courtesy of First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films
Photographer Bill Cunningham takes a shot of an unaware subject on the crowded New York City street on his bike. Bored by the world of fashion photography, Bill takes to the streets for photos of everyday people, Courtesy of First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

Bill Cunningham tells a friend he’s riding his 29th bicycle, because the other 28 have been stolen.

Most New York City residents know Cunningham as the old guy who rides around on his bicycle, taking pictures of random people on the street. To others, Cunningham is one of the most important and influential people in the world.

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, firmly believes “We all get dressed for Bill.” After his start in the hat business, he became a professional photographer in the 1960s, during the explosion of street fashion. Rather than simply focusing on the runways, Cunningham thought real people and real style spoke to him creatively and he realized the best fashion shows were on the street rather than on runways. Catching that fleeting moment of perfection as a person jumps over a puddle or talks with their friends displays taste and personality all at once. “If he ignores you, it’s death,” Wintour said.

During his time spent working at Details Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times, Cunningham hasn’t succumbed to any pressure. He only photographs the charity events of causes he believes in, he fought for cross-dressing men to be featured and refuses to applaud unoriginal designers. He could never be considered paparazzi. He pays no mind to the status of celebrities, but rather to clothes and personal style. Using his camera like a pen, Cunningham describes his world one picture at a time.

However glamorous the life of a fashion photographer sounds, Cunningham defies all expectations. Despite his obsession with clothes and fashion, his life is almost painfully simple. He’s entirely content with the most inexpensive cup of coffee and duct-taping his poncho rather than buying a new one. He refers to himself as a “slob” and his studio in Carnegie Hall is the size of a utility closet. The room is filled with huge filing cabinets that line the walls, meticulously organized with the negatives of every picture he’s ever taken. “Who wants a kitchen and a bathroom? More rooms to clean,” Cunningham said. It’s the loneliness that seems ever present in Cunningham’s almost invisible existence. With very few friendships and never any romantic relationships, Cunningham is almost always alone.

It’s rare to see a documentary about just one person, mainly because it’s difficult to find someone interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention. As shown in “Bill Cunningham New York,” Cunningham is truly an intriguing person, not only in his professional life, but also in his personal life. Though he comes off as a grumpy curmudgeon, in reality he’s tender and sweet. He refers to those who he likes as “child” or “kid” and has literally devoted everything in his life to his work. Despite all the attention his film has garnered, Cunningham has no intentions of ever watching it and claims himself to be unworthy of a film. One of Cunningham’s friends and admirers sums it up well by saying that Cunningham, “Doesn’t believe that he deserves it. That’s why he deserves it even more.”

Cunningham is content with his simple lifestyle, as long as he’s allowed to photograph what he loves. He’ll continue to ride the streets of New York City, watching, waiting and remaining invisible.