Obsessed with how people dress, New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham unfailingly dons the same shapeless jacket; a chronicler of ritzy charity events, the octogenarian tools around Manhattan on a bike. Cunningham's two weekly spreads in the Sunday Style section form complementary opposites: "On the Street" features everyday Gothamites decked out in eclectic fashion statements, while "Evening Hours" captures the rich clad in haute couture. Whatever the Times-produced, TV-ready tribute, "Bill Cunningham New York," lacks in tension is amply compensated by the pleasure of watching an enthusiast ply the craft he loves.
Less art photographer than cultural anthropologist, Cunningham holds a unique place in fashion history with his pictorial record of the changing New York scene. Vogue editor Anna Wintour credits him with spotting future fashion trends the rest of the industry goes to school on.
The film is filled with glowing encomiums by museum curators, authors and photographic subjects from all walks of life. But the heart and soul of the film is its archival and present-day footage of Cunningham at work as he pedals his 29th Schwinn (28 having been stolen) all over the city, waiting at street corners to snap whatever trend, anomaly or felicitous ensemble strikes his fancy. Shooting on the fly with a small 35-mm camera, the film then processed at a neighborhood variety store, Cunningham scans the negative into a computer and works with his art editor to lay out the page.
Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable discussing anything but his work, which joyously occupies his every waking minute. Aside from dispelling the myth that he comes from money and eliciting the info that he's never been involved in a serious relationship, Richard Press' documentary adds little of substance; the occasional scenes in which Cunningham is grilled about his private life produce more awkwardness than revelation.