Shoot on Sight

An 82-year-old photographer gets his close-up

You probably wouldn't notice the old guy with the camera. Clad in nondescript slacks, a button-down shirt and sweater, a blue smock, and a flat cap, with a camera around his neck, he stands on a Manhattan corner watching people, his back to the street. Occasionally the camera rushes to his face and he takes a quick shot. Sometimes he hurries across a crosswalk to catch somebody crossing the street. Or he just walks right up to a group of women talking on the sidewalk and takes photos of their shoes.

He's not aggressive about it — in fact, he's almost invisible, except for the camera that pops up to his face as he snaps and then immediately smiles. He just loves what people decide to wear when they leave their homes, and he's been looking at what people wear for most of his 82 years.

Bill Cunningham New York is a portrait of somebody who has spent his entire life doing something he loves — and doing so, perhaps, at great personal cost. Cunningham, as captured by Richard Press in this documentary, loves life. But there's an undeniably bittersweet streak that runs through his life, which he has spent mostly unattached and alone in a studio overstuffed with photo archives and very little else.

If you read The New York Times, you already know Cunningham. Since the late 1970s, he has documented the city's street fashions — from the era of denim dresses to baggy jeans, from fanny packs to men in skirts — in a column that has mostly appeared in the Sunday Style section as "On the Street." He also attends charity and socialite events for the Times' "Evening Hours," which offers candid peeks at Manhattan's elite. What runs through both columns is Cunningham's complete lack of condescension. He's not taking photos to make fun of people. He simply loves fashion.

It's the sincere appreciation for human individuality, not aristocratic or celebrity glamour, that defines fashion for Cunningham. When filmmaker Press catches up with him, he's one of two people still living in the rent-controlled studios above Carnegie Hall with no kitchen and a bathroom down the hall. Cunningham's studio is a maze of metal file cabinets containing his work and books; his bed is a one-person cot stacked on planks. He appears to spend every waking moment in the streets, in the Times offices obsessively organizing his page, and running around to events at night.

When Press gets around to asking Cunningham about the toll his single-minded pursuit has taken on him, the moment is heartbreaking. But it's counterbalanced by scene after scene of the photographer looking like he's still having more fun than anybody else in the room. So yeah, Cunningham may have sacrificed a few customary creature comforts, but he has lived doing something that brings him absolute joy. We should all be so lucky.

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