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Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham is a fashion photographer who rides a Schwinn bike and wears a workman's smock. Sounds like a total hipster - except that he's 80 years old.
By Hilary Simmons
October 30, 2011
By Hilary Simmons
October 30, 2011

Bill Cunningham is a New York Times photographer who rides a Schwinn bike and wears a cobalt blue workman's smock. Sounds like a total hipster — except that he's 80 years old. And every modern fashionista knows his name.

Day and night, the veteran cameraman pedals around Manhattan taking pictures of what people are wearing. But Bill, with his discreet 35mm Nikon, is not a fashion photographer. He simply likes the clothes: the cut, the style. The skyscraper-sized ambitions and supercharged egos of New York's status-obsessed socialites? You can keep 'em. The octogenarian shutterbug has long been a fixture at fashion shows, charity balls, high-society galas and social functions. Bill's keen eye captures trends before fashion columns have even been created; fashion critics unanimously agree that he has created the best record of New York style for the last 60 years.

This 2010 documentary by filmmaker Richard Press is a loving portrait of the man, the mystery and the meticulous creative process. It includes interviews with some of fashion's most noteworthy names and colourful characters, such as Shail Upadhya, a retired Nepalese diplomat who has a collection of optically outrageous suits, and Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, who defrosts enough to smilingly acknowledge that "we all get dressed for Bill".

Although Bill's passion is clothes, he only owns four outfits himself. He patches up his plastic raincoats with duct tape. He doesn't care how he looks. He refuses to accept so much as a glass of water at parties, never mind a free lunch: "If you don't take [anything], they can't tell you what you can do. That's the key to the whole thing." Bill's egalitarian spirit leads him to photograph only the clothes he thinks can be worn by people from all walks of life, and he is interested in "tastemakers", not superstars. He once overlooked Marilyn Monroe and Ginger Rogers in favour of some street kids because they wore more individualistic clothes, and he once snapped Greta Garbo without recognising her.

Bill's monastic asceticism shouldn't lead you to imagine his life is deprived in any way; he's always smiling as he pursues his single-minded focus: the perfect shot. In his own words, he eats with his eyes. This documentary celebrates that creative freedom.

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