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Bill Cunningham New York

If you’ve spent much time in New York it’s not unlikely that you’ve come across New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. He’s hard to miss, sporting his signature blue jacket (and sometimes, when mobile on the Schwinn he rides ’round on, an orange safety vest) while energetically snapping photos of the fashion-forward — whether they like it or not — as they walk the streets of Manhattan. For Mr. Cunningham, the best fashion shows take place on the concrete runways there.

The chipper octogenarian is equal-opportunity about who he snaps — uptown to downtown, from socialites to bicycle messengers — and it’s clear he thrives on the variety of life in his city; his four-plus-decade career chronicling high and low fashion has made him a New York fixture. And thanks to his Sunday Style columns “On the Street” (those fabber-than-average citizens) and “Evening Hours” (chronicling the city’s high-brow gala events), and, now, the absorbing documentary portrait Bill Cunningham New York, he’s officially a legend.

Bill works with a film camera, and (presumably because not even the Grey Lady’s facilities are equipped for chromogenic processing anymore) he gets his rolls developed at a neighborhood Photo King. He even uses a grease pencil to crop and mark the negatives, which are digi-scanned, ’90s-style, after which a very put-upon assistant sits with Bill each week to finalize layouts on a new-fangled computer machine. And what layouts they are.

Outside the context of the documentary, you may never guess he’s such an intrepid documentarian of the fashion vanguard. He admits his wardrobe would never be “On the Street”-worthy, and  hesitates to spend money on even a new poncho for rainy days. He rarely sees movies and has never owned a TV. Fashion is his passion, and he carries out his unique brand of cultural anthropology with unassuming grace.

“We all get dressed for Bill,” says never-bubblier Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, continuing her efforts here to soften that pesky Devil Wears Prada image. Tom Wolfe, David Rockefeller, and Brooke Astor (via wonderful footage of her 100th birthday fête) are among other famous admirers who appear in the film and profess their love. There are also kind words from museum curators, an ex-diplomat (!), and an array of photographic subjects from all walks of life.

And though he is recognized, beloved and embraced in certain circles, few of the film’s subjects really know much about Bill as a person. Many cite and appreciate the fact that he’s never sold out, that he’s vehement about it to the point of not accepting food or beverages at fashion houses’ events he covers. As he wisely says, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” Coupled with that aforementioned low-key lifestyle (modest to the point of asceticism), his quietly radical work ethic has made him as much a hero as an anomaly.

Throughout most of the time period covered in the film, Bill is one of several longtime residents of the legendary Carnegie Hall Studios, a haven for artists from the 1890s until 2010, when the city moved ahead with plans to demolish the commercial and residential studios — which in their 1950s Bohemian heyday numbered as many as 170 — to create educational and rehearsal space for the hall. The small flat in which Bill lived for 60 years was furnished mostly with large filing cabinets full of his long career’s output. It didn’t have a bathroom of its own, and the available ‘living’ space was about the size of the raggedy twin mattress he slept on. A good chunk of the film covers Bill and his neighbors’ (including charmingly cuckoonuts photographer Editta Sherman) struggle to remain in their rent-controlled spaces, and it’s not spoiling anything to report that they ended up losing their fight. Bill Cunningham even devoted one of his “On the Street” video slideshows to his musings on and images of the place.

On that note, you should be aware that this doc, fascinating as it is, essentially serves as branded entertainment sponsored by the New York Times, which partially funded the film. It’s subtle enough, and it worked on me — I was made eager to get myself to to visit Bill’s “On the Street” archive and watch the weekly video slideshows he narrates. Another word of warning: the filmmakers actually feel the need to trot out the Coldplay song “Rule the World” at one point late in the film in an effort, I suppose, to demonstrate to viewers (and potential subscribers) under 50 that they are “hip”. (Oh, Grey Lady.) Just do what I did, roll your eyes and carry on. It only detracts from this fast-moving film’s delicacy and poignancy for a moment.

The one time I recall seeing Bill Cunningham in person, in midtown west on an unseasonably warm autumn day, he seemed very interested in a trio of Gaga-esque young’uns walking a few yards ahead of me in variations of knee-high boots, barely-there day dresses, luminescent scarves, and not much else. I like to believe that somewhere in his sweet new post-Carnegie digs, in one of those storied filing cabinets, in the out-of-focus background of one frame of one negative, is an image of fully-clothed, less-fashionable me.

{Bill Cunningham New York opens Friday, April 29 at the Harvard Exit.}