“It’s all right there!” say Bill Cunningham, pointing to his favorite corner (Fifth Ave and 57th Street) of New York. And for the legendary fashion photographer, social observer, and freelance sartorial enthusiast “it” was more than just the “passing parade” of the city — it was life itself.
“It’s not about what I think it’s about what I see,” Cunningham says of his work as a photographer of both the rich and famous and poor yet wildly fashionable. For while fashion may be officially based in the laps of the wealthy and “well-connected,” for Bill Cunningham it was a sensibility available to everyone with taste and the will to realize it.
And he’s as relevant today as ever, something the new documentary The Times of Bill Cunningham shows that this thin, gangly bubbly smiling man, who passed away i 2016, is in spirit still very much alive.
Constructed around a lengthy interview director Mark Bozek conducted with him in 1994, The Times of Bill Cunningham is designed to provide as intimate a portrait as possible of an exceedingly decorous gay gentleman of the “Old School.”
Born in Boston in 1929 to a conservative Roman Catholic family, Cunningham’s interest in fashion began as a child when the hats women wore to church came to fascinate him. That instantly set him apart from his siblings and his family in a way so many LGBT people know all too well.
When the Korean War came along and he joined the army, he used his knowledge of French as a kind of queer passport to fashion. He got himself stationed in Paris, and once there made a beeline to the fashion shows.
He was especially enthusiastic about Jacques Fath and his “New Look” ensembles which set the pace for 1950s fashion.
Cunningham’s first connection to that world came on his return to the U.S. when, bringing his childhood hat fancy to full fruition, he began a career as a milliner — designing hats under the moniker “William J” for a number of women, including a rising starlet named Marilyn Monroe.
“William J,” Cunningham explains, became useful as this moniker drew a discreet veil over his family’s knowledge of his aspirations. They didn’t think of fashion as “a proper occupation for a man,” he quips discreetly with a tiny trace of amusement. As far as the Cunningham family knew, Bill was working odd, more manly jobs — delivering lunches, serving the counter at “Howard Johnsons,”etc.
What they didn’t know was that he’d settled into what might be called midtown New York’s Bohemian Central — the apartments atop Carnegie Hall. Marlon Brando and Wally Cox had a place there, as did over the years Leonard Bernstein, Martha Graham, and the soon-to-be-notable fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez — who became one of Cunningham’s closest friends (his painted visions of beautifully clothed women matched what Cunningham saw in his mind’s eye). There he also met Lopez’s models — runway star-to-be Pat Cleveland and actress-to-be Jessica Lange.
As hats were rapidly being “replaced by wigs” such work was over for Cunningham. But he didn’t graduate to dresses. Rather he had discovered photography as a means of expression and analysis. He went about shooting what he saw and loved on every social level for the New York Times which gave him a special berth on their Saturday pages.
As Bozek’s film shows what got the Times’ attention was a picture Cunningham had taken of Greta Garbo — the great Hollywood star now enjoying a comfortable “private life” in New York — which didn’t rule out frequent jaunts though the city and visits to the many shops that dotted the east side.
Now, no longer young but still beautiful, the Garbo photo was a boon to the paper. But what attracted Cunningham wasn’t her fame but the beautiful coat she was wearing so well. In fact it wasn’t until he developed the picture that he realized it was Garbo. In the same way, he adored Brooke Astor not for being the doyenne of New York society but because of her elegant style.
And he found downtown drag artiste Kenny Kenny just as stylish and therefore worthy of being photographed.
While the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham: New York, directed by Ricard Press is awash with lively images of its subject wearing his signature blue coat, riding about the city on his bicycle from one place, person or party to another.
Cunningham had very strict rules about his conduct and interactions. He refused to eat or drink anything served at the parties he dropped in on for photographs, and declined to be”rewarded” in any other way than a professional one by the Times. He speaks frequently of his”freedom” how monetary considerations would only serve to curtail him. Besides as we see he didn’t need much money. He had only a cot to sleep on in his studio that was filled to the brim with filing cabinets of his photographs and notations As for his “personal life” The Times of Bill Cunningham is a bit more revealing than “Bill Cunningham: New York.”
No we don’t get an “up close and personal”interview with a boyfriend. Cunningham doubtless had his amours over the years. But being gay gentleman of that generation he never discussed them.
He does however speak quite movingly of those gay friends he lost to AIDS, particularly Antonio Lopez and his lover Jaun Ramos. Their deaths struck him exceptionally hard.
In Bill Cunningham New York there’s a brief scene where he’s asked about the role Catholicism has played in his life, and Cunningham lowers his head and stares into his lap in silence for a moment before deciding to look again and change the subject. Apparently He felt he didn’t live up to his religion’s standards. In The Times of Bill Cunningham this same head-lowering comes when asked about AIDS, and when he looks up again Cunningham isn’t smiling or moving on. Rather his face is filled with anguish and he fights back the tears. No, he doesn’t go into details. But he doesn’t have to because at this moment he shows the other side of his normally bright and cheerful self.
To put it another way, Bill Cunningham is a sort of secular Saint. He rushed towards liking people and not away from the. He loved people of every class and kind. What he looked for was the best in them — generosity, amusement and, above all, style. For Bill Cunningham fervently believed that what we put on our outsides ought to be an expression of our insides.
All he needed was a simple blue coat.
As for the rest of us, Cunningham felt the sky was the limit — insofar as we got there in style.
It’s a standard we should all aspire to.