When “street fashion” photographer Bill Cunningham died in 2016, he was New York Famous for being the photographer who documented what the stylish wore on the city’s streets, for decades, for The New York Times.
He’d been honored in Paris for his contributions to fashion photography (he also shot runway shows) and celebrated in a lovely and popular documentary, “Bill Cunningham: New York,” in 2011.
People in the wider world knew who he was thanks to many TV profiles that spun out of that film, and the legions of fans and peers from his “world” that sang his praises in the movie.
“We all got dressed for Bill,” Vogue editor and fashion influencer Anna Wintour famously intoned.
But filmmaker Mark Bozek was sitting on a long filmed interview he had with Cunningham before that “fame” came his way, before he’d been profiled and interviewed to death, before AIDS retreated from the obituary pages, where it had decimated Cunningham’s world and taken so many he knew and worked with.
And that 1994 interview paints an even more revealing, more intimate portrait in “The Times of Cunningham” than the more authoritative earlier documentary. This is the famed street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham at his lightly-guarded, offhand, charming and modest best, telling his life story, having the various now-obscure figures who made him who he was today defined and described by a narrator — Sarah Jessica Parker.
Here is Cunningham, at 65, sitting with Bozek, cinematographer Jeff Hodges and sound recordist Bob Rodriguez, open and smiling and charming, still a wide-eyed enthusiast, a man at the peak of our current expression — “Living his best life.”
“I just go out and enjoy myself with the camera,” he gushes. “I don’t think of it as work!”
“I’m not a real photographer,” he corrects his off-camera interviewer (Bozek). “I’m a fashion historian.”
He grew up a Boston postal worker’s son who always had an eye for fashion and a thing for hats. His early years had him working as a milliner — a hat maker — selling his wares as “William J.” while supposedly working in the advertising department of Bonwit Teller.
He made hats in his spare time in the Army — “I kept that quiet, you bet!” — and took weekend passes to dash off to Paris to see fashion shows. His long journey towards his eventual life’s work let him see that “I wasn’t getting the answers from the fashion shows…I wanted to see the way women dress in their own lives…how people dress every day,” what they put on and accessorize with before hitting the streets of New York or Paris.
He’d ride his bike, dismounting to snap a shot or two, marveling at so much he saw.
He had jobs with Women’s Wear Daily and later freelanced for The New York Times, always living simply in a small apartment (eventually in the Carnegie Hall Towers), wearing a French laborer’s blue coveralls as a uniform, never getting health insurance, quietly earning, saving and giving away MILLIONS as he did.
The first camera Cunningham was given — an Olympus Pen half-frame (half a full frame of film exposed for each photo — came with an edict. “Use it as a notebook.” And that’s what he did.
He gets emotional in the interview about his “charmed life,” the sadness of AIDS devastating the communities he held dear. And he kept working. The night “Bill Cunningham: New York” premiered, he hung out outside, snapping the fashionable folks going in to see it. He never saw the film himself.
But as the “Nostradamus of fashion” (from Bozek’s written narration performed by “Sex and the City” star Parker), he had a higher calling.
“He helped people ‘see’ in a new way.”
Indeed he did. And “The Times of Bill Cunningham” helps us see him in a new way.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Bill Cunningham, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker
Credits: Written and directed by Mark Bozek. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:14