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Manhattan memes on camera

A new documentary about a fashion photographer with an incorruptible eye

Cintra Wilson | March/April 2012

One of Manhattan’s most distinctive landmarks is not a building, but a white-haired octogenarian in a bright blue smock, perched on a three-speed bike on an uptown corner, taking photographs of the sidewalk fashion parade. For more than half a century, the photographer-writer Bill Cunningham (above) has been documenting the evolution of style across the spectrum of society, whether it’s diamond-heavy Fifth Avenue matrons or art-school Aphrodites rising from the subway. His New York Times columns, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours”, are considered the gold standard of fashion journalism.

“We all get dressed for Bill,” declares Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, in “Bill Cunningham New York”, a documentary that has been collecting international accolades. La Wintour barely exaggerates: Cunningham’s incorruptible eye has long been the de facto conscience of the fashion world. His camera disdains boring, derivative fashions—regardless of which celebrity might be wearing them— in favour of capturing viral fashion memes during the brief, mysterious lifespans in which they articulate some new flash of exuberance in the sartorial spirit.

Richard Press’s documentary shines a light into both Cunningham’s monkish existence and his singular artistic mind. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he says, with a rebellious grin. His journalism supports an apparently frugal lifestyle, and he turns down any gig or gift that might smack of payola—he won’t even eat or drink at the events he covers. His extravagances, he says, are editorial freedom and objectivity.

Cunningham’s lifelong obsession with seeking beauty is inspiring: he finds it every day, on sidewalks and catwalks. “Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life,” he says. “You can’t do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilisation.” This unpretentious, clear-eyed film captures an artist of humility dissolving seamlessly into his subject—a moth, in love, becoming fire. ~ Cintra Wilson

Bill Cunningham New York British release March 9th

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