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MOVIE REVIEW: Bill Cunningham New York

Fashion photographer on the streets of New York

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This is why I get so excited about documentaries. When I saw commercials for Bill Cunningham New York, it looked uninteresting. When I was a kid, I was thrilled when I got an autograph from Billy Cunningham, a Hall of Fame NBA player that was coaching the 76ers when they came to play the San Diego Clippers. I had no clue who Bill Cunningham the photographer was. And he was a very interesting subject to get to know.

He’s the long-time photographer of the New York Times “On the Street” segment. He’s so into his job, the 82-year-old will jet in and out of traffic with cars honking, to catch a photo of somebody wearing a funky outfit.

And don’t confuse him with the paparazzi. He’s not interested in famous folks unless they’re wearing great outfits. He doesn’t even know who most of the current stars are.

There’s a side story about him living in the Carnegie Hall Studios, with a 98-year-old neighbor who is also a photographer. She was more into taking photos of the rich and famous.

Cunningham is about to be evicted, and it’s hard to feel sorry for him. His new digs have a great view of the city, and he’s finally going to have a place with a kitchen and a bathroom.

In his old studio apartment, he slept between filing cabinets that contained every negative of every photo he’s ever taken.

It was fun to see folks like Tom Wolfe (author of Bonfire of the Vanities, The Right Stuff, and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), Annette De la Renta, and Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue) talk about him. Wintour says “We get dressed for Bill.”

We learn that Cunningham used to be a hat maker, even designing for a few stars like Marilyn Monroe. Somewhere along the line, he became obsessed with taking photos and nothing else. It is at the point where you have no choice but to assume he would be classified as a hoarder.

Nnobody comes close to his obsessive nature when it comes to photographing people and what they wear. He’ll wake up early in the morning, take photos all day, and attend a gala ball late into the evening taking more photos. And as cheap as he is, he’ll refuse free food or even bottled water at these events, because he considers this a form of payola and that it might compromise his work.

It was interesting watching people walk by as Cunningham snaps photos. Aside from a couple thugs that threatened to break his camera, everyone was either flattered or just ignored the man bending down in front of them as they scurried by in the rain.

I wondered why he didn’t continue making hats, since he’s so into fashion; or why he doesn’t have any of the crazy outfits he loves. Instead, he owns about five blue shirts that street-sweepers use.

This wasn’t as interesting as last years documentary on cable called Smash His Camera, about long-time paparazzo Ron Galella. It was an interesting enough story to recommend.

It gets a B.