“I eat with my eyes.” Bill Cunningham Documentary at the MoMA
“I eat with my eyes.”
Bill Cunningham, the notoriously normal New York Times photographer, has devoured millions of fashion costumes during his long, successful career. Last night was the opening of the New Directors/New Films festival and at the MoMA screening of Bill Cunningham New York, fashion characters as diverse as Kenny Kenny and Anna Wintour were in the audience to watch director Richard Press’ tender portrait of New York’s most self-effacing photog.
A celebrity in his own right, BC is unaware of and unimpressed by celebrity, choosing to focus his lens on capturing real NY style on the street. Everyone knows and loves Bill’s On The Street column, and I know I personally check it regularly to see if I recognize anyone. Getting your picture snapped by him is fashion gold. For Bill there’s no such thing as “in” or “out” because style is such a personal choice. Sagely, he proclaims that “fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
Until recently, BC lived in a modest artist’s studio inside Carnegie Hall. He stored his Schwinn in a hall closet and used the communal bathroom which is also located outside the apartment. Inside the studio, there was neither glamour nor frills: the kitchen was absent but there were file cabinets filled with negatives of every shot he’s ever taken and a library of fashion books and magazines. His bed was surrounded by file cabinets (and maybe even propped up on books) and his meager wardrobe hung on wire hangars hung from different makeshift racks. He eats inexpensive meals from average delis, does his own laundry and rides his Schwinn to and from work. And when he’s snapping at fancy events, he never eats or drinks anything, not even a glass of water! Not a trace of excess, extravagance or entitlement here, folks!
In the most touching scene of the movie, an interviewer poses two questions to BC. First, he asks BC if he’s ever had a romantic relationship in his life. BC realizes that it’s a ploy to get him to speak about his sexuality and with trademark joviality he remarks that he never has been involved with anyone. Laughing as he speaks, he says he simply doesn’t have the time, between shooting on the street, working the events and putting his column together. He’s a one track mind – work work work. Partly because he loves what he does so much. But I think there’s a part that immerses him so deeply in his work so as not to deal with the harshness of reality. Then the interviewer asks BC (who attends mass on a weekly basis) about the role of religion in his his life. BC cracks, pauses to regain composure, before he continues on about how as a kid he loved going to church to see women’s hats. But now religion gives him the guidance that he needs. It was heartbreaking, yet humanizing, to see a man so confident and sprightly break down over these two intimate questions. His humility makes him utterly self-effacing, hiding behind the lens to avoid discussing his least favorite topic of conversation: himself.
Bill is one of a kind and a true gentleman. He treats royalty and strangers on the street with equality because for him, they both have the same potential to be beautiful.
– Javier Gonzalez
( Editors Note: Brian Mills: In the summer of 1995 on the then much grittier Lower East Side, Myself and Long time friend Benny Ninja were walking the streets , all done up in our home made fashions , It was one of those hot , seemingly frantically slow days when out from no where emerged Bill Cunningham from across 2nd ave , With camera shutter fluttering like that of a hummingbirds wings . he was mightily pleasant , and offerenerd his compliments to our ” courageous dress “. Well, with much excitement to think that we were just photographed for The New York times i scanned the paper until several months later the pictures made it to press in the Dec. 31st 1995 issue in the style section ” the View from the Outside ” . It being my first exposure to what i thought was Papaparazzi at the time , let alone the Legend and documentarian that he is it makes it even more special to present this article today. Thank you to Mr. Bill Cunningham for your decades of determined street archiving and igniting the tiny flash bulb in this shutter hungry souls heart – Brian Mills )