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Monday, May 23, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

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Eighty-two-year-old Bill Cunningham peddles his bicycle to work each morning through Manhattan traffic. Work is his life, and his life has been dedicated to snapping photographs of New Yorkers from the penthouse to the street corner. His most characteristic shots, published for decades in The New York Times, are entirely in-the-moment scenes from the city's byways. "The best fashion show is on the streets," he says, and that's not hyperbole coming from a man who has also covered fashion week in Paris.

Richard Press' documentary Bill Cunningham New York works, much the same way as its subject, by watching patiently for moments of interest and patterns amid the apparent jumble. The film reveals a man of grace, judgmental about clothes but never the people who wear them, whether stockbrokers or drag queens. While perfect objectivity is unattainable, it's possible to engage life with few preconceptions, and Cunningham has gone many miles toward that end.

The film captures the photographer in his longtime Carnegie Hall studio crowded with metal file cabinets stuffed with his negatives—the archive of his vocation. Books are stacked around the folding cot where he sleeps. Paradoxically for a fashion photographer, he owns few clothes and keeps them on wire hangers dangling from file cabinet doors. The bathroom is down the hall. It's a remarkably ascetic life for a man with the eye of an aesthete, but then, Cunningham has lived like a monk among the fleshpots of Manhattan. His personal life remains mysterious as he roams the city by bike, as comfortable with the homeless as in the company of the Astors.

As director, Press gently tries to pry into the inner recesses of this sociable recluse. With his vaguely patrician New England accent, Cunningham sounds disingenuous when he claims working-class origins. He attends mass every Sunday and shrugs off the question of whether he's ever known romance. He would rather let his work, which he holds like a mirror in the face of other people, speak for him.

Cunningham's one complaint is about people who look like cookies from the same cutter, and the tide of homogenization has even threatened his way of life. He was one of the last of the old tenants evicted from the Carnegie studios, whose ateliers have been cut up into cubicles for telemarketers and other drones. As with everything else in his life, Cunningham accepted his situation with an amiable shrug and the desire to keep working until the end.