Bill Cunningham, photographer, captures fashion on a New York sidewalk in 'Bill Cunningham New York.'

Getting Behind 'Bill Cunningham'

Susan Gerhard April 8, 2011

It’s no accident that a documentary portrait of the New York Times beloved ‘On the Street’ fashion ethnographer, Bill Cunningham, features the words “New York” its title. As its director, Richard Press, says, “Bill is New York and New York is Bill.” Passing every night on a cot in a studio with no kitchen or bathroom to joyfully spend every day photographing the world’s most dizzying fashion parade, Cunningham is the evolutionary endpoint of a city where all classes, and most ideas, pass through the same small squares of concrete hourly. Though indigenous, he is a rare bird. I got the chance to speak with Press and his producer, Philip Gefter, who both spent significant time in the Bay Area (and, as it turns out, married here), about the creation of Bill Cunningham New York in San Francisco this past week. Bill Cunningham New York opens April 8 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Lark in Larkspur.

SF360: This film was many years in the making. Can you talk about how it started?

Richard Press: It was 10 years in the making: It took eight to convince Bill to make it and to shoot and edit the film. But here’s the CliffsNotes version: I worked at the New York Times, freelancing as an art director and worked with Bill on his page. I met him doing his page. Philip worked at the New York Times for over 15years as the Page One photo editor and a writer about photography. Soon after I met Bill, I went to Philip and said, ‘We need to make a movie about this guy; he’s so fascinating.’ We dragged Bill into a conference room and he just burst out laughing: He didn’t understand why anyone would want to make a movie about him. He didn’t think there was any subject.

At one point, I thought maybe Bill needed to get used to a camera being around. So I told him I might be out on the street filming him, and he should just ignore me. So one day, after shooting him from across the street, he motioned me over and said, ‘Come back to the New York Times. You can film me working there.’ I went back to the New York Times, and filmed him doing his page. At the end of that day, he said, ‘OK you have your movie.’ He thought that was it. That was in 2002.

Fast forward to three years ago: He was being given a New York City Living Legend award. He didn’t want to accept the award publicly. I said I’d cut footage together to show as an homage. Bill saw it and liked it. The New York Times saw it and liked it. We started a conversation with Arthur Sulzberger.

Philip Gefter: Bill respects the New York Times and the Sulzberger family. When Arthur called him and said we think this is a good idea, you should do this, it had sway.

Press: When he saw the short, he got that we got him.

Gefter: Nobody else could have the same access to Bill as we had.

Press:  The movie was made very unconventionally. There was no film crew, no sound recorder, no boom operator. It was just myself shooting, Philip as a producer, Tony Cenicola, the other cinematographer. Bill knew him as staff photographer at the New York Times. It didn’t look or feel like we were making a movie.

SF360: With Page One: Inside the New York Times playing festivals and opening in July, Bill Cunningham New York hints at the culture’s interest in preserving this newspaper.

Press: Bill Cunningham New York is a coproduction of the New York Times and First Thought Films. We asked the Times to join us to make the movie. They supported us in making the movie. It’s not a New York Times product. Our movie really is about Bill.

Gefter: Bill, aside from our interest in him, because of his qualities, the rigor of his work ethic, the passion, his profound modesty, and the simplicity with which he lives his life—those are reasons we wanted to make this film. The movie is called Bill Cunningham New York because it’s also a window onto New York. We both think of bill as a kind of avatar of New York City. The New York Times is part of that; that is in our movie.

SF360: You’ve both lived on both coasts. Can you say something more about Bill’s representation of New York and the New York lifestyle as different from ours?

Press: Bill is New York and New York is Bill in a certain way. Bill celebrates self-invention and self-creation. And San Francisco is a city of self invention and self-creation, and so is Los Angeles, since it’s about the movie business and how you present yourself to the world.

Gefter: What I would add to that is the difference between the cities, and what would make it very difficult for Bill to survive and function the way he does in New York is that New York is really a pedestrian city. Street life is very active. It doesn’t exist in the same way in San Francisco or Los Angeles.

SF360: Bill’s attitude is so joyful in the film. He has so many things to say about life: ‘Money is the cheapest thing, liberty the most expensive.’ ‘I let the streets speak to me.’ Can you talk about his perspective on life?

Gefter: He’s not self-satisfied.

Press: Bill is really open to what’s out there. What makes him so singular; he doesn’t have an agenda. When he ways he wants the street to speak to him. He’s interested in seeing beauty, self-expression, self-creation, people dressing fabulously. Whatever form that takes. He’s got an incredible eye. He’s an historian. He’s open to the possibilities of what self-expression is. Society woman in couture is of the same interest as a punk downtown wearing a dress.

Bill has taken a vow of fashion; it’s a religious calling, a dedication to this one passion to the exclusion of everything else.

SF360: [Spoiler] Bill finally left the Carnegie studio he’d happily inhabited without a kitchen or bathroom inside it when he’s forced to. Has he adjusted to his new home, the one with a view of Central Park?

Gefter: It didn’t phase him initially, because most of his day is taken up with what he does everyday: shooting on the street, doing his page and photographing parties at night. He took that very nice [new] studio apartment, had all the cabinets removed as well as all the appliances in the kitchen to have more room for his file cabinets. Still doesn’t have any furniture.

Press: I’m sure he enjoys the view.

Gefter: In spite of himself. He has distilled the way he lives his life down to the daily process of doing his work. Everything in his life is geared to that alone.

SF360: The fashion industry has such a love of Bill. But he keeps a distance. What's the relationship there?

Press: First and foremost Bill is a fashion historian. There’s great respect for him as someone who’s so knowledgeable. He’s got so much joy for what he does that it’s infectious. People love seeing someone who’s so engaged in his work. Bill has no agenda. He’s not looking for anything. He doesn’t want anything from anybody. He’s not trying to climb some career ladder. People respond to that purity. It’s profound. He’s a rare bird.

Gefter: Bill is the most reluctant fashion deity on the planet. It’s manifest in the fact that he is looking at clothes. He’s looking at fabric, pattern, a style, the way it’s all assembled. He’s not looking at labels or any kind of prestige aspect of what people are wearing. The industry wants some hold on Bill to exploit all of that. The labels. Merchandising, all of that. But Bill is immune.

SF360: [Spoiler] The personal question that arrives at the end of the film; did it arrive at the end of production? How did you get there, close enough to ask about Bill’s intimate relationships to people and to the Catholic Church?

Press: That really came toward the end of filming. One of the things when I was thinking about how to structure the movie was that the revealing of the man paralleled the revealing of himself to the filmmakers. That’s why the filmmakers are in the movie. That interview was AT the end of our filming, and [the emotional moment came] at the end of that interview. We knew that those were two questions we were going to ask. We didn’t realize they were going to turn out to be so powerful in the film. They were basic questions; questions you would ask anyone you were doing a film about.

Gefter: That interview session lasted over an hour. Those two questions were part of a generally intimate discussion. Talking about other things, as well as family, career.

SF360: The fight over the Carnegie Hall studios that pitted working artists against each other in these difficult economic times seems similar to what’s happening all over, but particular to New York City.

Gefter: It’s reflective of what’s happening to New York City. These are places where artists used to live and work (also like the Chelsea Hotel) and from which culture has been bubbling up over the course of the last century. They are dying out in the wake of corporatization and a franchise economy that’s consuming New York City.

Press: Part of the reason I thought IT was important to include the battle with Carnegie Hall in the film is that the artists that were nurtured there, they defined American culture in the 20th century in dance, music, film, photography and theater. It was essential in the creation of the culture. There really isn’t in New York City today that kind of nurturing of the artist. It was a really important thing to document. Bill and Editta and their neighbors, they’re the last bohemians, the last of an era.

That is not to say art isn’t flourishing somewhere else. I think New York is the lesser for it because it’s not possible anymore in Manhattan for artists to create that way.

Bill Cunningham New York opens April 8 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Lark in Larkspur. Press and Gefter will be on-hand for audience Q&As at the 7:15 pm Friday show in SF and the 7:10 pm show in Berkeley.