January 10, 2012

MOVIES: Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2011)

Bill Cunningham New York is an entertaining documentary about the veteran fashion photographer. For fifty years, Cunningham has been documenting fashion in New York. His focus has included the obvious runway shows and society galas, but he's perhaps best known for his weekly New York Times "On the Street" feature, for which he assembles 20 or 30 candid shots taken that week built around some trend he's spotted -- picture frame collars, men in skirts, denim.

Taking those candid photos is how Cunningham spends most of his days, getting around the city on his bicycle and photographing whatever catches his eye. For some, being seen in an outfit interesting enough to get Cunningham's attention is a badge of honor.

Many of those photographed for "On the Street," though, don't even know they've been photographed until they see the picture in the paper. While it's true that there is no legal expectation of privacy on a public street, the stealth photography of ordinary people does make me a bit queasy ethically. The movie only briefly addresses that issue, with Cunningham arguing that he's different from the paparazzi in that he's not chasing celebrities; his photography is done quietly and discreetly, and he's always more interested in the clothes than in the people wearing them.

Cunningham is a charming eccentric who has, as one of his colleagues says, "never taken a cruel picture," and he's a delightful personality to build a movie around. Bill Cunningham New York is a sweet little bonbon of a movie.

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