Director wanted to capture the life of fashion’s ‘rare bird’

Bill Cunningham, the journalist and original street-style photographer gets his due in the new film Bill Cunningham New York. It follows the New York Times lensman as he chronicles the anonymous style of the street by day and the ballrooms of the swells by night. Director Richard Press talked about the documentary that was 10 years in the making.

Q: The film seems more about conveying a feeling than laden with facts. Did it start out that way?

A: With Bill, it’s really about who he is as a person -how he’s lived his life, his religious obsession with his work, his ethics, his joy. The facts of his life were only interesting to me in terms of filling out the contours of his life. I knew I wanted to capture this rare bird, and be a celebration of self-invention and self-expression. I wanted to do journalistic due diligence but then realized as I was putting more facts into the movie it sort of weighed it down.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

A: I joke that Bill has taken a vow of fashion. But I didn’t really get the singular obsession with his work, almost to the exclusion of everything else. He lives like a monk. Material comforts are not important: food, spending your time “after work” -that notion that most of us have and live.

Work is his life, and his great pleasure. He is very happy but has structured his life in a very pared down, ascetic way.

Q: Like sleeping on a milk crate bed among filing cabinets. How can the Times bear that Bill stores decades of cultural anthropology, his negatives, in his cramped apartment rather than in more secure surroundings?

A: Interesting fact: Bill is the only New York Times photographer who owns his own negatives, who owns his own work. He’s on staff and I don’t know the details but basically they give him two pieces a week, and he fills them.

Q: Bill says: “If it isn’t something a woman could wear I’m not interested in it.” That seems like a throwaway line but it’s pretty subversive.

A: In a very kind of quiet way he is a subversive, even the way he’ll publish a photograph of a designer that they have basically copied from the past -Isaac Mizrahi, or Armani copying the Paul Poiret. The thing about Bill is that he is very egalitarian but he also has really strong opinions about what’s good and what’s bad.

Q: Publishers and galleries have been trying to get Bill to do a show or a big book for years. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

A: About six years ago they seem to have convinced Bill to let them do a book of his work and got a really prestigious publisher lined up. When they brought Bill the contract he said “No child, I don’t have any time for this.” Anything like that would take too much time to produce and take him away from the street, from his life’s work.

Q: How did his approach to life affect you?

A: I really think that we all wake up in the morning with this question of how we live our life with purpose and meaning and ethics. I think Bill is the gold standard of that. I don’t know that I could live with such purity of purpose as he does but he really has changed the way I approach my work.

In a way Bill is the last bohemian -that whole way of being, all of those people who lived in that Carnegie Hall apartment building. That sort of commitment to creating art for nonmaterial gain doesn’t exist any more.

Q: So many want to be fashion insiders, but Bill wilfully maintains his outsider status.

A: I think that’s why in a way so many people respect Bill because he doesn’t have an agenda. He’s not looking for money or status or selfaggrandizement. He still hasn’t seen the film. He’s given us his blessing. He is just humble and he doesn’t want any of that, which even beyond fashion in our culture is a rare thing.

Apr 22nd, 2011 | Posted in Fashion
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