You wouldn't think a documentary about a New York Times fashion photographer could leave you feeling upbeat about the state of humanity, but that's just what the lively and remarkable Bill Cunningham New York does.
The bicycle-riding octogenarian has spent his long career chronicling the fashion victories of everyday men and women. He's never shot a "Glamour Don't"-style photo. He's much too nice for that.
He shoots what he thinks looks fabulous. And, he's much less interested in what celebrities wear, since they get their clothes for free and have stylists dressing and accessorizing them. What catches his eye isn't typically straight off the runway. He believes some of New York's "bag ladies" have incredible style, and some of his photos justify that belief.
In a city and an industry known to be temperamentally cold and fickle, Bill is unusually warm and steadfast. A genuinely nice guy who has, improbably, risen to the top of the fashion photography food chain, he even earns plaudits from the notoriously cold Anna Wintour. "We all get dressed for Bill," she says.
This delightful old gent has to hustle to get the photos he wants and get them ready for his two weekly style columns. He still uses film, so the time it takes to get that developed adds to the time it takes for him to ready his column -- and adds to his colleagues' good-natured frustration with the old-fashioned perfectionist.
A documentary that focuses on a single person typically allows us to get to know its subject well, but Bill remains a mystery. Even the high society people who admire him and believe they know him well (Tom Wolfe, Annette de la Renta, in addition to Wintour) admit they don't know if Bill has friends or family or if he ever gets lonely.
We see Bill's spartan Carnegie Hall apartment (a closet-sized room with a mattress on the floor and filing cabinets everywhere else) and his spartan wardrobe (a blue lab coat, often held together with duct tape, and khakis) and wonder how a man so drawn to beauty and whimsy can need so little of both in his own, personal space.
Bill's an enigma -- to those whom he considers friends and to those of us in the audience. But, that's part of his self-effacing charm. He doesn't want to talk about himself. He wants to talk about the personality regular folks reveal when they get dressed each day. See it.