He is a Camera

Richard Press’ admiring film does neat tricking of capturing photographer Bill Cunningham

Anyone who reads the New York Times Style Section knows Bill Cunningham’s work. This sly, shy photographer follows the trends — baggy trousers or polka dot dresses — for his “On the Street” collages, and he documents the who’s who of high society for his “Evening Hours” photo spreads.

Famously reserved, Cunningham allowed himself to be filmed by director Richard Press and his partner, producer Philip Gefter, for this irresistible documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York.”

“We wore him down,” Press said with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “I met Bill and knew him for a few months, and wanted to make a film about him. He laughed. Thought it was a ridiculous idea. Couldn’t entertain it. ‚’Why me?,’ he asked. ‚’There’s no subject here.’ He kept putting us off.”

The filmmaker pressed on, though, thinking that maybe the man behind the camera needs to get used to being in front of the camera.

“After a while, he said, ‚’Come back to the Times if you want to film me at work,’” Press remembered. “At the end of that day, he said, ‚’Now you have your movie. You’re done.’”

But the film was just getting started.

“My impetus was to show who Bill is as a person — his religious, obsessive relationship with his work.” Press said. “Once he agreed to be filmed, it was always a bit of a negotiation. He thought it would take a week, but it took almost a year.”

“Bill Cunningham New York” captures the infectious spirit of its subject, a man who is incorruptibly honest as well as extremely modest. It may be these qualities that allow him to move freely among high society, downtown hipsters, and the fashionistas that he photographs. The film tracks the flow of Cunningham’s life, whether he is biking around the city in his blue windbreaker, snapping candid shots on the street, or attending black tie galas.

“He doesn’t want people to know who he is,” Press explained about his film’s enigmatic subject. “For someone who is so shy, and doesn’t want to be filmed, or talk about, glorify himself — once you get him to talk, he is so interesting and charismatic. At first, he was horrified about us following him, but I think he was glad we were there.”

Press said he wanted to shoot Cunningham “as invisibly as possible” — essentially borrowing the surreptitious approach the photographer uses when he stalks and shoots his subjects.

One telling scene shows the photographer not identifying himself when he calls a camera store to make arrangements for getting film developed. At the beginning of the documentary, Anna Wintour and other acquaintances of Cunningham’s admit they don’t know anything about him.

Eschewing a traditional “biopic” approach to telling Cunningham’s story, Press constructed the film to dole out bits about his subject, just as Cunningham slowly revealed himself to Press and Gefter during the course of shooting. This is part of what makes the film so engaging. Viewers are initially captivated by the character of Cunningham, and become more interested as the film unspools, as we learn about his fight against eviction or how he was the only media personality invited to Brooke Astor’s 100th birthday party.

One early scene Press is particularly happy about involves Cunningham repairing the poncho he wears as he darts around the city on his bike.

“I wanted to get him with his poncho,” the filmmaker recalled. “I sat waiting, and almost gave up. The next thing I know, he’s patching it and talking about it. This moment captures his sense of humor, his eccentricity — and his life force was in his smile. To me, it showed so much about him. It’s really a delicious moment where the audience bonds with him as a character.”

“Bill Cunningham New York” frequently trails the photographer on his bike rounds. At one point, amusingly, he runs into the back of a taxi while the camera keeps moving. Press admitted it was exhausting to keep up with the 82-year-old: “It was fun, but I was literally begging him to stop so I could take a break.”

For Cunningham, however, his life is his work and there are no breaks.

“Every day, all day, it is all about the work,” Press said. “He doesn’t go out to dinner or a movie or a play. He would be at the Times at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He never published a book or had a show because it requires too much time and keeps him away from what he loves.”

Getting just a few personal photos of his subject from his past, the filmmaker said, was “like pulling teeth,” but when he wanted an image of model Carmen Dell’Orefice jumping a puddle, Cunningham knew when he shot the photo and what cabinet it was in.

“I gave him a list of the photos I wanted, and he came through,” Press said. “But going into his archive was frustrating for him because he only wants to spend his time taking photos.”

The filmmaker described Cunningham as almost monastic in his dedication to his work.

“He’s taken a vow of fashion,” Press joked.

Cunningham’s utter commitment comes across beautifully in the film, which is why it’s almost a shame when an off-camera Gefter asks him about sex and religion. “You want to know if I’m gay?,” the photographer asks, then deftly dodges the question.

Though a regular churchgoer, Cunningham takes an uncomfortably long time to respond to the query about religion, but in doing so reveals his thoughtfulness.

The scene seemed to pry while the rest of the film simply observed, but Press defended it, saying, “We asked him about relationships — it’s what you would ask anybody. We wouldn’t have been doing due diligence if we’d not.”

Those moments, however, come off as a minor flaw in an otherwise wonderful, celebratory portrait of a photographer who, the filmmaker revealed, will never see the film.

“He has no intention of seeing it,” Press said. “He gave us his blessing. He knows what’s in it, and he hopes we’re successful with it.”

Complete Information:

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

Directed by Richard Press

Zeitgeist Films

Opens Mar. 16

Film Forum

209 W. Houston

filmforum.org

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