Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Most Important Man in the World

by Drew Martin

This past weekend I watched a fascinating documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It is about this 80-something-year-old fashion photographer for The New York Times. It is of course about clothes and fashion, New York and The New York Times, but more importantly it is about loneliness and being part of society's bigger picture.

What might be considered a sacrifice of lovers and family for an unfettered creative working life seems more like a substitution and a fair exchange for someone who loves what he does. Cunningham is a loner but he spends his days surrounded by millions of people, documenting their styles and being adored for his instinctive understanding of fashion. For most of his career (and all of the film) he lived in a tiny artist studio at Carnegie Hall, sleeping on a cot between his filing cabinets (part of the film is about his being evicted). He did not have a kitchen or bathroom in the studio. He ate out for every meal on the cheap and used the hallway bathroom on his floor. When discussing the possibility of a future living space having more amenities he laughs,

"Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom?!"

For transportation, he gets around on a classic Schwinn. He says the one he is riding is his 29th; the previous 28 were stolen.

In the end of the documentary Cunningham is asked about his personal life. He says he never had a romantic relationship, sobs to himself, and then answers the next question about church; he regularly goes because he admits he needs it. He adds that when he used to attend as a kid, all he did was look at women's hats.

When asked the first question, he suggests it is a more specific inquiry about his sexuality but skirts the topic as something that was not discussed in his upbringing. It is a heart-wrenching moment. As for relationships, he says he did not have time and it was not on his mind but that he is also human. It is an amazing idea that someone who spends his day just a thin wrapping of fabric away from a world of fleshy bodies has never opened the presents.

In the end, Cunningham talks about honesty. To play a straight game in New York, he says is like Don Quixote fighting windmills. It was a welcomed analogy because throughout the documentary I kept thinking of Cervantes' line "The road is better than the inn."

What we learn of his honesty is that money and perks are something he shuns. At a Lincoln Center gala we see him turning down an offer for food. He thanks the host and hurries off exclaiming "I eat with my eyes!" This discipline is more than declining the temptation of being wined and dined, he does not even accept a glass of water at such an occasion when he is on assignment for the New York Times so as to not compromise his position. Keeping a distance, he says, allows him to be more objective.

Although Cunningham has dedicated his life to documenting fashion, he does not give the impression of a workaholic. He is good-spirited, easy-going and his craft comes naturally so you entirely believe him when he says it is not work but pleasure. What might be simply stubbornness of another man his age is really his determined vision.

There are delightful scenes of him working with a Times layout artist half his age, who he calls a lumberjack from southern New Jersey. In one interaction, Cunningham comments on the dress and pose of an elegant New Yorker he had photographed at an evening event who they are placing in a layout. Cunningham likens her to "a John Singer Sargent painting"...the lumberjack fumbles a confused response not understanding the reference, which is specific to Sargent's scandalous Madame X, a larger-than-life painting from 1884 that damaged the reputation of the Parisian socialite, Madame Pierre Gautreau, and spurred Sargent's departure from France.

At an awards ceremony for the National Order of the Legion of Honour of France, Cunningham is decorated as an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters but spends most of the time running around taking pictures. One attendee remarks to him how funny this is and he gleefully responds,

"You think I would miss a good picture?!"

At the ceremony, the decoration medal is pinned to Cunningham's blue worker's jacket. Whenever I saw him riding around Manhattan or scanning crowds at galas in his royal-blue smock, I thought it was a printer's jacket from New York's bygone printing era but he explains in the film while on a fashion week trip in Paris that it is a French street sweeper's jacket, which he wears because it is inexpensive and has pockets.

The footage of Paris immediately follows Cunningham's remarks to the documentary film crew in New York that there is no way they are going to follow him to France for the events. Fortunately they did because there is a priceless scene of him trying to get into a fashion show. He humbly holds out his press pass to a twenty-something woman with a clipboard. She is not very helpful and dismisses him. In a minute an older man comes over, takes him by the arm and informs the woman,

"This is the most important man in the world."

This is not far from the truth in the fashion world. Vogue's Anna Wintour charmingly says in the film that everyone gets dressed "for Bill" and that he takes one or two pictures when he sees something he likes and when he does not bother it is "death." It is not that he commands that kind of power but his reaction to what is stylish is so immediate and unfiltered that it comes out as the inarguable truth.

In Paris, Cunningham crosses paths with Anna Piaggi, a fashion columnist for Vogue. He says she is the best subject to photograph in all of Europe and is why he goes to Paris. He calls her a poet with clothes.

He definitely knows who's who but not the modern celebrities since he does not go to the movies or have a television. When they pass by and he does not take their pictures, he says he has overheard people say he must be the dumbest one in the crowd. He explains that even if he recognizes a person he will only shoot her clothes if she is wearing something interesting. He says he could never be a paparazzi - tormenting people, and that what he does must be approached "discretely and quietly. Invisible is the word."

Cunningham speaks of Paris fashion week as a school that educates the eye and during his decoration speech says,

"I'm not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. I am interested in clothes."

Some scenes of this documentary are interviews with him from previous decades. In one piece he talks about how the wider world perceives fashion as frivolity but defends,

"...the point is; fashion is armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don't think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."

About his craft he says,

"It's not photography. I mean any real photographer would say, "He's a fraud! Well they're right. I am just about capturing what I see and documenting what I see."

Click here to view the trailer for Bill Cunningham New York