For New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, a red Schwinn bicycle is as much a part of his working kit as his camera.
For decades, the 82-year-old, silver-haired sprite in a blue smock and tweed cap has been pedaling around Manhattan with his Nikon. By day, he chronicles fashion trends as displayed in candid shots of New Yorkers on the streets. By night, he haunts the soirees of the Big Apple’s upper crust. His two photographic columns for the Times Style section are called “On the Street” and “Evening Hours.”
“More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York,” fashion designer Oscar de la Renta says of Cunningham in a Wikipedia entry on the photographer. “It’s the total scope of fashion in the life of New York.”
Says Cunningham: “The best fashion show is definitely on the street. Always has been and always will be.”
Now, Cunningham is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Richard Press called Bill Cunningham New York. The film was shown last June at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs film festival in Silver Springs, Md., and opened in select theaters in New York and other cities on March 16.
Among the people who appear in the film to talk about Cunningham’s life and work are many of the luminaries he has photographed over the years: Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Brooke Astor, David Rockefeller.
“I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill,” Vogue editor Wintour says in the film.
On April 5, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Cunningham in a piece headlined: “Hunting Birds of Paradise.”
Cunningham lives a spartan lifestyle in quarters barely large enough to accommodate a bed, and he’s not beholden to the shakers and movers who frequently are his photographic subjects. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing,” Cunningham says in the film.
“In a world where conflicts of interest are quaint,” Dowd wrote, “Cunningham has a profound sense of ethics. He will not even accept a glass of water at the galas he covers.”
As for his bicycle, Cunningham is now on his 29th. “I’ve had 28 stolen,” he says.
The Times has posted on its website a short video on a day in the life of its “bicycle-bound fashion and society photographer.” Also, check out the trailer for the documentary.