Friday, 28 March 2014


There are few places in the world that have the same allure as New York. Home of Carrie Bradshaw, Lady Gaga and everybody in between, the city that never sleeps is renowned for its mix of Paris' bourgeoise scene and the underground scene of London. Fascination with the residents of this legendary city is well-documented, mainly through the lens of Brandon, founder of Facebook group and cult phenomenon Humans of New York. But before Brandon there was another man with a camera; although he was less interested in transcribing the stories of the people of the streets, fashion icon Bill Cunningham managed to visually portray the story of some of the city's best-dressed dwellers. The 201 documentary "Bill Cunningham: New York" tells us the story of the man behind the New York Times' fashion page; it's a story that is as heart-warming as it is eye-opening, and it's a reminder that fashion photography is only as brilliant as it can be when executed without restraint. 

The documentary is peppered with monologues from some of fashion's most recognisable faces - Anna Wintour and her iconic bob make an appearance, as do the outsized spectacles of the world's most stylish octogenarian, Iris Apfel. We see extracts of Bill in the 1940s working as one of the few photographers allowed into Christian Dior's intimate couture presentation, and we see a stark contrast to the media circus surrounding the frenzied fashion shows of the modern age - at one point Bill is almost refused entry to a show until one of his colleagues, rather brilliantly, drags him by the hand into the show explaining "Please, he's one of the most important people in the world!" to a bemused lady with a clipboard. 

Incidentally, Cunningham was always too avant-garde in his sensibilities to think about the reactions of the 'high-fashion' society. Although he works as a runway photographer and sits front-row at shows around the world, he is well-known for his desire to publicise the original wave of New York club kids that would revolutionise the fashion scene. One example is Kenny Kenny, a renowned staple of the '80s nightlife scene. When Bill proposed a photo of Kenny wearing a dress (with worker boots - it's fashion, not drag!), the photograph was rejected by the editor who feared it would alienate part of the readership. Undeterred, Cunningham promised Kenny that one day he would grace the pages of the Sunday Style section - and of course, he was true to his word. Another genius way in which Cunningham rebelled (unintentionally perhaps) was by printing runway photographs alongside archive photos to highlight similarities between new collections and those that had come before; a move which, although it caused trouble amongst designers accusing others of stealing their ideas, ultimately forced new designers to be creative in order to catch his eye. Innovation is Cunningham's passion, and because of this he often would neglect to photograph the outfits which he felt were unoriginal. Even Wintour herself admitted (with her own acerbic wit) his influence explaining that "if he sees you, he likes you, he snaps you once, maybe twice - you're happy. Or he ignores you completely. That was like death!" 

There is, however, a heartbreaking undercurrent to the film which centres around a petition in New York city to evict Bill  and remaining fellow artists from their apartments in the iconic Carnegie Hall to clear space for telemarketing offices. Throughout the duration of the film, it becomes evident that any career in the fashion industry is one which is constantly opposed, whether it be via corporations placing profit before artistic integrity or other, more profitable industries being prioritised over the creative industries. Bill talks frequently about money - in stark contrast to the glamourous galas he photographs during the evenings, the 85-year-old lives in a tiny studio apartment which is stocked to capacity with negatives of everybody he has ever photographed. His inspiring motto is that "money is cheap - liberty is the most expensive thing in this world", and this stubborn determination to stay true to his word is illustrated through several humourous anecdotes throughout the film.

One of the greatest elements of Bill's work is that, as is stated in the film, there are never any 'nasty photographs'. published. In a tabloid era obsessed with 'circles of shame' and 'who wore it best', this desire to always paint his subjects in the most positive light possible is inspiring and, more than anything, reassuring. These intentions remind us that fashion isn't about competition, wealth or superficiality; at its core, it is a vehicle for self-expression, used as a confidence boost. Perhaps the greatest quote from the man himself comes when he is asked about the function of fashion, to which he replies "Fashion is the armour we all wear to survive daily life. I don't know that any of us could live without it - it would be like living without civilisation". It's this passion for fashion that comes through most strongly in his work; for example, he reveals that he was always too obsessed with clothes and engulfed in his work to ever have a romantic relationship, a story which he says seems 'peculiar' to most people. The irony is that this film serves its purpose better than any romantic film in history; at its core, it is a love story between one man and his work. 

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