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Arts & Culture

An Homage To Street Fashion Photog Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham shooting on the streets of New York.
Bill Cunningham shooting on the streets of New York.

I love Bill Cunningham. He's the original street fashion photographer - the one who mastered today's trend - and a New York institution. For years, he's been documenting fashion trends on the streets of New York, which he traverses on his trusty Schwinn, reporting for The New York Times.

Cunningham does a regular feature for the Times called "On the Street" in which you hear him talk about the photos he's taken. He's always so unabashedly enthusiastic.

Who knew you could be so happy about trench coats, leggings, and leopard print? Ok, so I've been happy about those things (maybe not the leopard print). But Cunningham's appreciation for statement and expression makes fashion seem like a place for everyday adventure instead of a consumer trap.


A new documentary called "Bill Cunningham: New York" opens in San Diego this weekend. In it, we learn that Cunningham's life is his work. He's in his 80s and has lived something of monastic existence in the name of fashion - or as he might put it - the pursuit of beauty.

He's never had a romantic relationship. He attends church every Sunday. For years he lived in a tiny apartment above Carnegie Hall packed with file cabinets where he stores copies of every photograph he's ever taken (he's still shooting film). The apartment had no kitchen and a public bathroom down the hall. He stored his bike in a hall closet, retrieving it daily to hit the streets with his camera and rolls of film.

Cunningham and the last remaining tenants (paying rent-control prices) at Carnegie Hall moved last year, forced out by the owners who wanted to expand and renovate the apartments into offices and classrooms.

The film also introduces us to Cunningham's former and eccentric neighbors at Carnegie Hall. The most fascinating is Editta Sherman, a 99-year-old photographer who was once a muse for Andy Warhol. Sherman has been called the "Duchess of Carnegie Hall" where she lived for over 60 years.

For all the artifice and pretense of the worlds he covers (fashion and New York society), Cunningham is humble and completely without airs. He's a chronic smiler and his sense of humor is refreshing in an industry known for pouty lips and raised eyebrows.


On rainy days, Cunningham wears a plastic poncho to stay dry. At one point in the film, we see him duct taping a hole in the poncho and laughing about it. This is one of those moments where you understand that Cunningham is truly an observer and chronicler of the fashion world, not an insider. He keeps a journalistic distance. He won't even accept a glass of water at the society functions he covers.

Cunningham's also not a poser, which is my impression of fashion street photog of the moment, The Sartorialist. The latter would never be caught dead wearing a cheap poncho, much less duct taping it.

The Sartorialist is also a slave to chic and luxury clothing, what Cunningham refers to as "cookie cutter" clothes. We meet some of Cunningham's regular subjects in the film - the eccentric heiresses, the dandies, drag queens, and one U.N. official who is as soft-spoken as his clothes are loud. On the streets, Cunningham searches for their daring choices in sea of conservative blacks and greys.

Cunningham is also clear he has no interest in photographing celebrities. While in Paris for Fashion Week, he rolls his eyes at the photogs rushing to get a picture of Catherine Deneuve. By the end of the film, you realize it's a level playing field for Cunningham, the fashion on the streets are his muse. There is no caste system.

But that doesn't mean the fashion world doesn't court his notice. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour sums up the influence of Cunningham's editorial eye when she says "We all dress for Bill."

"Bill Cunningham: New York" opens today at Landmark's Ken Cinemas.