An eighty year old man pierces the New York throng on his pushbike, only pausing to take snaps of the latest in fashion: what is this, Portrait of a Fetishist in his declining years? An oddball begging for loose change in exchange for a fleeting photographic memory? Neither, it turns out; this is Bill Cunningham, revered and cherished photographer for the New York Times where his weekly column has appeared for umpteen years in fact, over 40.
A veritable roving microscope, his lens poring over the hideous, audacious and fashionable to document the latest impulses overtaking those who dress for the sense of contributing colour, drama and the bizarre to an everyday outing in the Big Apple, Cunningham is mostly tolerated or ignored. But in a sleepless city of hustle and bustle, where people identify a camera not as an intrusion but a portentous first opportunity to be freed from anonymity for 15 minutes or else set on the road to discovery, few turn Cunningham away.
Rain, hail or shine, the photographer and his subjects merge on the streets. Most of his photographic abstractions will top the dung heap when scrutinised in greater detail, but from the multitude he is always able to discern a distinct trend – either seasonal or stylistic – for his next column.
A presumption of homosexuality, considering the arena he works in, is arrived at readily but the strangely asexual Cunningham (who claims to have never had a proper relationship his entire life) is difficult to read. Director Richard Press does a fine job at portraying the rapport he shares with his co-workers, all of whom adore him as if part of the furniture, but beyond an admission about his devout religious following, little else can be gleaned beyond the job he has made his own for nearly half a century.
The man is an ageless wonder, no doubt, to be admired for his purity of vision and devotion to his gift capturing needles in haystacks, but he feels more heavily defined by his eccentric side. From his frugal ways with money and choice of nourishment, his fervent hoarding inside a willfully chosen confined space (his tiny studio apartment in the increasingly less populated Carnegie Hall) and random interactions with his dwindling number of kooky neighbours, Cunningham is both presented as benevolent and somewhat sad – a man who has lived long and well, defied the odds, spurned notions of an unlikely longevity, achieved hard-fought artistic peaks, and yet still remains a strangely internal, forlorn figure of mystery.