One of my favorite memories of interning at The New York Times was having Bill Cunningham greet me in the morning with a kindly, “Hello, child.” Cunningham, the legendary fashion photographer, is now the subject of a documentary that recently premiered to very favorable reviews.
“Bill Cunningham New York” chronicles the octogenarian photographer’s peripatetic bike rides throughout the city as he scouts for “birds of paradise” to showcase in his columns in the Sundays Styles section. According to director Richard Press, it took eight years to win Cunningham’s consent. “I think he’s truly humble and modest and he’s allergic to any kind of attention,” said Press. “So he just really did not understand why anyone would want to make a movie about him.”
I recently caught up with Press to discuss the work that went into making this documentary and the subject who inspired it.
Joanna Nikas: Can you tell me a little bit about the courtship involved in persuading Bill to allow you to film his life?
Richard Press: I met Bill when I was working as an art director at The New York Times, so I actually worked with him, and that’s how I met him. And Philip Gefter, the producer, knew Bill as well because Philip was an editor at The New York Times for 15 years on the picture desk. So we both knew him and soon after I met Bill I went to Philip and said, “I want to make a movie about this guy. He’s just incredible.” I grew up reading his column so I admired his work but I had no idea who was behind the byline. So Philip and I dragged Bill into a conference room at The New York Times and said, “We want to make a movie about you.” And he just laughed. He just thought it was the most ridiculous idea. And every six months we would kind of pull him aside and say, “You really need to do this, people need to know about you,” and we were just trying every different thing and he would have none of it.
And about six years ago I thought, maybe he just doesn’t want the camera on him, he just needs to get used to having a camera on him. So I said to him, “Bill, I might be on the street with a video camera. I hope you don’t mind. but I am going to try to shoot some footage of you.” And he just, you know, poo-pooed it. So I went out of the street with a camera on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue and I was filming him. He completely ignored me, and I was a respectful distance away, and at the end of about an hour, he waved me over and he said, “You know why don’t you come back and you can film me at The New York Times working.” So I thought, “Oh my God, this is it. He’s finally agreeing to do it.” So I went back to the Times and I filmed him for an afternoon, and at the end of the day he said, “OK, that’s your movie. There’s nothing more to know.” [Laughs]
So, I had all this footage and I put it in a drawer, and about three years ago he was being given a New York Living Legend award at the Waldorf Astoria, and he didn’t want to publicly accept the award, so I said, “I have this footage. I’ll cut it together into a three-minute short.” Which I did. And Bill was actually there covering the event; he wasn’t accepting the award, he was covering the event because there were other recipients as well. So we showed this three-minute homage to Bill and he really liked it. He wrote this letter about how I got his spirit and sort of who he was.
But the thing is that even after Bill agreed to do it, he didn’t quite agree. So it really was this dance for about a year where we were always navigating, trying to gain access, to have him allow us to film him.
The short version is: we wore him down. [Laughs]
Nikas: And even when you were filming, were there certain things that were just off limits?
Press: No, there really wasn’t. Really what’s onscreen, what’s in the film, is his life. There’s nothing else that he does that’s not there. The movie was made really unconventionally – there was no crew. It was just myself shooting and Philip and Tony Cenicola (a staff photographer who knows Bill as well) — and it was really a very intimate thing. The way the movie plays out mirrors Bill’s slow revealing of his self to us as filmmakers. But over time he let us into his apartment — very few people have been allowed in his apartment to begin with and nobody with a camera.
Nikas: Any memorable scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Press: Actually, one thing that I was really trying to get into the film: In the 1950s, Bill worked for a fashion clothing store on the Upper East Side called Chez Ninon and it was a store that dressed the most fashionable women in New York. One of his clients was Jackie Kennedy, whom he got to know very well. When [President] Kennedy was assassinated, she didn’t know what to wear and she didn’t have time to buy anything and so she flew back to New York with a red Dior dress that Bill had sold her for him to die black. That became this iconic funeral image. So Bill had a hand in that. Bill is like the “Forrest Gump” of fashion. He’s been [present] at these very significant moments in fashion history. There just wasn’t enough time or narrative space to put all the stories. It will just be in the DVD extras, I guess.
Niklas: You’ve spoken about Bill’s dedication to his work. What else about him makes him so exceptional?
Press: I think it is the purity of purpose: He’s taken a vow of fashion. It’s almost like his religious calling, and so he’s not looking to get anything out of it other than his own pleasure and sharing it with the world. He’s not looking for any material gain, he’s not looking for any status, he’s not looking for any ego gratification — he’s looking for nothing and I think that that’s what makes him special. And the joy that he gets out of it and the ethics with which he [goes about pursuing] it. I think that that makes him a rare bird.
Nikas: In this current age of celebrity obsession, how does Cunningham’s approach to fashion differ from that of the mainstream press?
Press: Well, I think first of all, what he’s dealing with is the street, and he’s really more interested in what people are doing with the clothes when they come off the runway and how they put it together for themselves. So he is interested in creativity, in self-expression and self-invention and that’s what he celebrates. The difference is also that he’s completely egalitarian. For him an uptown society woman wearing couture all the way to a downtown hipster wearing some outrageous outfit and everything in between is valid. It’s different, but it’s just as interesting as long as it’s fantastic. So he’s really looking for creativity, there’s nothing to do with commerce or with the business of fashion.
For more information about “Bill Cunningham New York,” visit the website.
This interview has been condensed and edited.