The Times of Bill Cunningham
by Brandon Thomas
In 1994, rookie producer Mark Bozek sat down with New York Times fashion and street photographer, Bill Cunningham. The casual chat about an award Cunningham was receiving was supposed to only be a quick 10-minute in and out.
The interview didn’t end until the tape in Bozek’s camera ran out.
Twenty-five years after conducting this interview, Bozek makes his feature documentary debut with The Times of Bill Cunningham. Less a look or critique of the New York fashion scene, Bozek’s interest is sharply focused on the unassuming Cunningham.
Bozek uses the ample footage at his disposal to let Cunningham share his thoughts and insights about his life and career. Cunningham’s almost child-like zeal for his work comes across as both disarming and curious all at once. From his beyond-modest “apartment” in the old Carnegie Hall Studios building, to his uniquely un-chic wardrobe consisting mainly of hand-me-downs, Cunningham wasn’t your typical New York fashion figure.
As the layers peel back more and more, Bezok is able to capture and celebrate Cunningham’s genuine kindness — whether that be his enthusiasm for catching people “as they are” on the street, or the financial support he showed a friend who was fighting a losing battle with the AIDS virus.
Peppered throughout the film are many of Cunningham’s photos. The juxtaposition of these wonderful photographs with his animated interview makes for an appreciative experience. Many of these photos were splashed across Cunningham’s weekly spread in the New York Times. A few gems, however, were never published during Cunningham’s storied career.
Sparse narration by Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) provides needed connective tissue and context. It’s one thing to take Cunningham’s word for it, but highlighting his accomplishments in the broader fashion world is a poignant statement on how important he was to the fashion industry and to New York City itself.
Documentaries focused on one individual aren’t new. Specific filmmakers, politicians, and athletes have all received this treatment. What’s so different, and enthralling about The Times of Bill Cunningham is how much Cunningham gets to speak for himself. It’s an honest, unfiltered look at a man that did what he loved — and did it well.