Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York Hero

Well maybe "hero" is a bit strong. But this guy is an awesome character. Yesterday I went down to the Film Forum and caught the biography on him "Bill Cunningham New York".

He's the most happy-go-lucky guy in the world. He's a fashion photographer and columnist for the New York Times. He's known for just wandering the streets of NYC all day, snapping pictures of people and spotting fashion trends. He's been at it since the late 60s.

The high end fashion world would all KILL to have their gear appear in his weekly column. They are continuously offering him HUGE sacks of cash, perks, wine/women/song... all the luxuries that so many people dream of. The kind of luxuries that go on in the upper floors and private clubs in NYC, that most mortal people just don't get to see. But he has NO DESIRE for any of that. While working the biggest and most extravagant events, he won't eat or drink anything... not so much as a glass of water. He'll eat in a deli or diner before hand... loves the $3 bacon and egg sandwiches and coffee.

It's actually kind of weird... it really is an obsession with this guy. He spends all day every day snapping photos, and editing them together for his weekly column, except for about an hour on Sundays when he goes to church. Not married, never ever dated... just had no time for any of that. Is not gay, claims he has normal physical cravings like everybody else, but just doesn't have time for romance.

For most of his career, and while they shot this movie (last year some time), he lived in Carnegie Hall. Yes, that world famous concert hall one block south of Central Park. Sounds like a pretty expensive and extravagant place to live, right?

Well at one time, Carnegie Hall had large and small studios for rent. Dance groups and choreographers, photographers, and fashion designers took up space in there... with a separate entrance, right next to the main entrance to the hall. The musical Oklahoma was choreographed in there, to give you an idea of how big some of the studios must have been. He started there as a millinery (hat designer) in a tiny little one-room on the corner... and he never left. During the filming of this documentary, it was loaded with nothing but file cabinets, and a makeshift bed... a board and a mattress propped up on four masonry blocks, with books stored underneath. The only other things in this "studio apartment" are file cabinets and loads of books stacked up all over the place, and room for his Schwinn bicycle... his 29th Schwinn... the other 28 were all stolen.

His few clothes were on hangers hung off the handles of his filing cabinets. Sometimes he'd have to move a couple of hangers to get to a particular drawer to pull out negatives of a photo shoot he was looking for.

The bathroom and shower were in the hallway outside his studio, shared with other tenants. There was no kitchen. It was rent controlled.

He spends most of his time on the streets of NYC, at fashion shows, or working at social and fund-raising events.

Or he's in his area in the New York Times building (the big new one). His area consists of a block of a few cubicals, one of those light tables so he can view negatives, a computer where mostly he arranges the layouts for his weekly column (his assistant does the actual mousing of the layout, cropping, pasting, etc... while he says "No, don't cut off her arms... they're the most beautiful arms in New York...")

Carnegie Hall (owned by the City of New York, apparently) is run by a management company who decided they wanted to evict the 3 people left in the building who still called this their residence. They found comparable (or "better") accommodations for these tenants, in the area (i.e. ON Central park w/ views and a kitchen, bathroom, and closet). They show him going through a couple of places w/ the agent and he's like "Why do I need a kitchen? Just something more to clean. What would I PUT in that closet anyway?"

Apparently Carnegie Hall split up the studios (not his, his was TINY) into Telemarketing offices and cubical farms for businesses.

So anyway, over the years this guy has developed friendships with some of the most wealthy and influential people in the world, notably "Lady Astor" the 90-ish heir of the Astor fortune. Publishers, politicians, designers, philanthropists... he knows them all. Apparently The New York Times pays him a very decent salary. He took on some side jobs as well, most notably his work with Details Magazine starting in the early 80s (now defunct). However, he refused to take any money from Details. The first check Details offered him, he went in to his boss (the publisher) and ripped it up. He didn't want them to "own" him or influence him in any way. His attitude was "take my work as it is, or don't... but don't ever tell me what to do". They were known to publish 100+ page issues, featuring up and coming designers who nobody had yet heard of... apparently that's an unheard of number of pages for a magazine. They said that this magazine got bought out by another, and is now part of the Conde Naste empire (just down the street from NY Times building)... he didn't accept his share of the buyout either. Conde still sends a letter now and then telling him they have a check for him.

He quit working for another high profile magazine when they used his work against his intent. He did a column featuring shots of high end fashion on runway models at the fashion shows, and then the same clothing on people he saw randomly walking down the street. The magazine used unflattering captions for the "common" people. This was 100% opposite his philosophy, that fashion was ALL ABOUT what the common person wears on the street.

There's a great scene in the movie where he's in the crowd outside one of the biggest fashion events in Paris, and he's showing his press ID to the young chick at the gate... with a THRONG of people trying to get in, or at least snap a photo of people who ARE getting in. One guy behind the velvet rope reached passed this young girl and took him by the arm and escorted him in, while telling the girl "This is the most important man in the UNIVERSE right now."

He was honored in Paris for his work, and at the gala event he spent the whole night like he does every other night... snapping photos of the guests. He tells the promoters of events, "Don't even send me a guest list. I don't care if you have celebrities or royalty there. If I like the charity, I'll show up and your event will be featured in the NY Times. I don't CARE about who is in the dress, I'll find a good fashion layout at any event... or even better, in the street outside."

He is also noted for calling BS when he sees it. He's gone into his archive and published (in The Times) side by sides of some "new" designer's work, right next to something 30 years old... embarrassingly similar.

He also published some shots of models many years later, who he randomly caught on the streets of New York, in almost the exact same poses (just naturally occurring) that appeared 30 years earlier on the covers of magazines... such as a woman stepping over a puddle.

While the credits are rolling at the end, they flash a note saying that he signed a lease for a new apartment and is moving in this month.