There is a rare breed of person that will devote his life entirely to his career. This passion/obsession for a single field has been present in every truly great genius: Van Gogh, Warhol, Dickinson, et. al. All of these eccentric icons shirked marriage, family, and "community involvement" so they could devote themselves to their respective art forms. Bill Cunningham's place amid this particular type of artist is firmly proven in Richard Press' documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.
Bill Cunningham's beginnings in the world of fashion photography first took place in the late 1960s, the height of ostentation and innovation in New York hippiedom. Cunningham would spend his weekends in Central Park and SoHo, documenting the sartorial revolution that was happening in addition to the social one. From that moment on, Cunningham's only concern in life was clothing and its associated trends. Difficult though it may be--considering how elusive Cunningham is--Bill Cunningham New York delves into the core of Bill as a person who has hidden so well behind his camera for all of these decades, and touches on some of the reasons why this might be.
Cunningham's intense focus on seeking out the next fashion zeitgeist has, by Press' visual account, prevented him from addressing his lack of a personal life. Those who know him--even some of his oldest friends, like photographer/former Warhol muse Editta Sherman--can only glean the most cursory of information. At the time of the documentary's filming, Cunningham was still living in one of the few artists' studios left in Carnegie Hall, where his entire apartment was lined with file cabinets containing archived negatives of every photograph he had ever taken. If that isn't taking your work home with you, I don't know what is.
And yet, without Cunningham's unwavering allegiance to his profession, the history of fashion in New York and as a whole would have some severely gaping holes in it. Cunningham's photography has covered the gamut of social environments--from the street to the high society gala--making his viewpoint the most unbiased one in fashion.
The film's third act features Cunningham being honored by the French Ministry of Culture during Paris Fashion Week. Cunningham's modesty shines through not just during his acceptance speech, but also at the party itself as he takes pictures of others, never one to miss out on an opportunity to spot the next remarkable ensemble.
While Bill Cunningham New York may not depict the most welcoming vision of what it is like to let work consume you, it does paint Bill Cunningham as a generally content person who somehow sees the positive light in everything and manages to let unpleasant realities roll off his back (mainly being evicted from Carnegie Hall). It also reveals that it is possible to become a prevalent force in New York without being a total asshole--even though Cunningham is correct in noting that staying honest and good-natured in New York is "like Don Quixote fighting windmills." Appropriately, as the film's credits roll, The Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror" plays. No other song could be more relevant to what Cunningham has done for our culture.