Cunningham, chronicler of society, shuns spotlight | AspenTimes.com

Cunningham, chronicler of society, shuns spotlight

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Bill Cunningham shooting on the street in New York City from the feature-length documentary, "Bill Cunningham New York," ( 2010), directed by Richard Press and produced by Philip Gefter.

ASPEN – About two years ago, Bill Cunningham, the New York Times photographer who does the newspaper’s On the Street fashion column and the Evening Hours social page, was selected to be honored as one of New York’s living legends.Cunningham declined the opportunity to give a speech, and probably wouldn’t have even shown up at the ceremony, at the Waldorf Astoria hotel – except that he had to be there, to cover the event. Cunningham even passed on watching a short film about him; he had other social gatherings to cover that night. In his column following the Waldorf event, Cunningham duly ran photos of his fellow honorees – and duly failed to mention that he was part of the honored company.The incident confirms several things about Cunningham. First, that he is uncommonly devoted to his work. And second, that Cunningham would much rather document the social doings of others than see himself in the society pages.”It’s just who he is,” Richard Press, the director of the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” said. “He says, ‘I’m interested in one thing – how people dress. It’s the great passion in his life, and he’s dedicated himself to it. He does this one thing to the exclusion of everything else.”The work itself – especially On the Street, the compelling, obsessive column that for decades has revealed the true, street-level cutting edge of fashion – was enough to fascinate Press. The filmmaker had worked as a designer at The New York Times, and had occasionally done Cunningham’s pages. But Press also thought that Cunningham himself, despite his intensely private nature, was worthy of being documented.”I just thought he was so intriguing as a person,” Press said from his apartment in New York’s West Village. “I loved the work he did, but his ethics, the religious way he goes about his work – that was fascinating.”Press raised the idea of making a film about the photographer a decade ago. Cunningham, no surprise, would have none of it. “He just thought we were crazy: ‘Why would you want to make a film about me?'” Press said. “He’s very modest, doesn’t think what he does is important. People have tried to get him to do gallery exhibitions, books, and he just says no.”Press understands how persistent Cunningham can be in rebuffing proposals. Press notes that “Bill Cunningham New York” – which will be shown at Paepcke Auditorium Monday in the New Views: Premiere Documentaries series, a new program presented by Aspen Film and The Aspen Institute – took 10 years to finish: “Eight years to convince Bill, and two to make it,” he said.After raising the subject repeatedly and getting nowhere, Press decided to push forward. Five years ago, during New York Fashion Week – when Cunningham was sure to be out and about, and suitably distracted – Press, a photographer and filmmaker, mentioned that he might be out on the street taking pictures, and might aim his camera in Cunningham’s direction on occasion. Press thought that Cunningham might just need to get comfortable with the idea of being in front of a camera, but three more years passed with Cunningham showing no interest in having any more footage shot of himself.Press, though, wasn’t the only one who believed Cunningham would made a good subject for a documentary. The organizers of the Waldorf event wanted a short video, since Cunningham refused to make an in-person appearance. When they saw the footage Press had shot, they had him make a three-minute piece to show at the event. Among those in attendance who were impressed with the footage were representatives of The New York Times, who expressed interest in co-producing a documentary, and also encouraged Cunningham to watch the video. After seeing the footage, he began to have a change of heart.”He saw this little thing I had made, that I got who he was,” Press said. “And he’s very loyal to the paper.”Respecting his subject’s desire for privacy, Press kept the filmmaking crew to a minimum, and used only people whom Cunningham knew. Philip Gefter, the producer of “Bill Cunningham New York,” was an editor at the Times for 15 years; Press served as cinematographer; and the second camera was operated by Tony Cenicola, New York Times staff photographer.The film penetrates Cunningham to reveal his quirks (the ever-present blue raincoat, the absence of a life outside of work, the preference for traveling by bike), and his passion for fashion and photography. The portrait that emerges is one of a voluble, consumed character, opening himself up in a new way.”He’s very private, but in the most public sphere,” Press, who, along with Gefter, will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. “He’s very social in certain ways, but also incredibly private. All these people who know him really well, they say in the movie that they really don’t know anything about him.” There are even scenes shot in Cunningham’s tiny, photo-filled apartment in Carnegie Hall, and the filmmaker still sounds surprised to have been granted such access. “No one had ever been in his apartment. He showed us his neighbors. He opened up this whole world to us.”Press said he thinks Cunningham comes across like a movie star, filling the screen with his personality. The film, he notes, was selected as the opening night screening in the New Directions, New Films series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.”He’s charm itself,” Press said. “You could write about Bill, what he does, who he is, and it would be great. But in the movie, he’s like a leading man. That’s why I wanted to make the movie – he’s so interesting, so singular. The shyness – that’s genuine; it’s not a pose. And the stuff that comes out of his mouth – he’s a font on information about fashion, history.”He’s one of the only people I know, when you watch him work, there’s real joy. He’s just a happy guy, doing what he’s doing.”stewart@aspentimes.com