The Beholding of Beauty: Bill Cunningham and Fashion

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First theological musings on the documentary: Bill Cunningham New York  (Richard Press, Zeitgeist Films, 2011). 

Bill Cunningham is an 83-year-old man who rides around New York City (and sometimes Paris) on his bicycle, chronicling what fashionable people wear.  His photos grace the Sunday edition of virtually every New York Times I’ve ever seen.  He is the paper‘s style and fashion photographer and has apparently been doing some variation on this for the last 50 years.  You are likely to have seen him yourself — depending upon the circles in which you travel — lurking near Bergdorf’s or eying outrageously flamboyant people – indoors and out – men and women — from Soho to Harlem.

When Bill Cunningham New York opened at the International Film Center this past Spring, it was well-reviewed.   And I was staunchly unimpressed and uninterested in seeing it.  Why?  Well, because Cunningham is a style and fashion photographer for the New York Times and I assumed, somehow, that a movie about him would be arty, superficial, arch, or merely of specialized interest to the same people who actually read the annual fashion issues of major New York magazines — of which I am not one.  Only out of boredom did I finally get around to seeing his documentary this weekend.

And oh, was I wrong, and wrong-headed in my snobbery.   This documentary  is not nearly so much about what people wear as it is about beauty and discernment, educated taste, and a lifetimes’ devotion to seeing what is supremely important in very ordinary things.  In fact, to see Bill Cunningham is to understand why the Metropolitan Museum of Art  has had a Costume Institute since 1989.  And to understand why, perhaps, the late designer Alexander McQueen’s exhibit this summer  — “Savage Beauty” —  was such a blockbuster for the Met. New Yorkers and others stood in line for hours to see it.  And were glad.  Because, as it turns out, the beauty on display in the McQueen “fashion” show was  every bit as vivid and valid as the artwork in the Monet or Frans Hals exhibits.

Bill Cunningham’s artistic credentials (and energy!) are everywhere on display in this film.  He is astonishing to watch: uptown, downtown, in society and in street scrums, he brazenly turns and focuses on whatever and whomever he wants, turning modestly away from what strikes him as unoriginal.  Designers and fashion editors and collectors treat him as royalty.  In one recorded scene, when Cunningham is temporarily blocked by bouncers at the annual Paris show, a designer’s assistant glides out and explains that Cunningham is “the most important person on earth” — despite the fact, as Bill Cunningham New York makes clear, that he has no wealth or power beyond his photography and artistic credibility.

He pays attention to trends and styles as they appear, without concern for prestige, beyond, of course, his focus on people who are original and “hope to be beautiful,” as he puts it.  Until recently (when he was evicted along with all other tenants), he lived in a tiny studio at Carnegie Hall — filled mainly with the file cabinets of his carefully organized negatives throughout the years — and a camp cot on which he seems to have slept.

Cunningham still rides his bicycle around New York, keenly observing his surroundings and taking streams of pictures.  He ONLY rides his bicycle and it is his 29th one.  All the others have been stolen (and I, for one, wondered how he has managed to avoid being hit by other vehicles as he weaves through traffic lanes). He wears the blue smock of a Parisian sanitation worker (purchased in Paris for $15) because he expects anything he wears to be destroyed by the cameras and lenses he wears dangling from his neck.  He seems to have an elderly formal suit which he wears to galas.

He attends charity functions on behalf of the Times, but chooses which ones and decided long ago that he would accept neither food nor drink, nor so much as a “glass of water,” from their sponsors.   “I’m there to take pictures,” he explains, noting that “I sit down and have dinner before I go.”  Except for the Times, Cunningham accepts no compensation from any source because he wants to be utterly independent.  His mantra is:  “If they don’t pay you, they can’t tell you what to do.”

Nothing in the entire documentary suggests that Cunningham has any life or relationships apart from his art, and, by all appearances, the man lives like a monk.  He doesn’t seem to need very much.   Still, he plainly loves what he does and he loves the honors he receives on its account.  The only other activity he mentions is going to church.  He goes  every Sunday — for the music and, he adds, “I go and repent.”  It’s hard to know of what he is repenting.

But there it is at last, my question.  What is the Gospel for Bill Cunningham?   What’s his good news?   As an officially religious person, I look at this man — who has lived his life with all the integrity he can manage — and I wonder, sacrilegiously, about his life’s value according to our usual definitions.  Bill Cunningham has not devoted his life to feeding the poor or housing the homeless.  He has not worked to heal lepers.  He has not even lived “for others,” as we say.  When he dies, his obituary will not read like Mother Teresa’s or Jimmy Carter’s.

So how about it?  Can anyone doubt that this artist’s life has mattered?  Though he suggests to his interviewer that he is a gay man (“well,” he answers, “that’s probably why the family wanted to separate me from the fashion industry”), he also acknowledges that he has never, in his entire life, had a love relationship.   While that is a very sad claim, there is much in this film to contradict it.  Cunningham may not acknowledge it, but  it is clear that he has both experienced and given love.

To watch him, e.g., with the young photographers he mentors or with the elderly ladies who almost, but not quite, seem lost in their wigs and illusions, is to see a hugely kind and open man.  He is the only person, one journalist observes, to whom fashion arbiter Anna Wintour has never condescended — which is saying something. More to the point, Cunningham’s life and passion for his work, as depicted here, have a clarity and a purity that nurtures everyone with whom he comes into contact.  The image the documentary conveys is of a human being who loves what is beautiful and original and uses all his art to help us see what he (and I suspect, God) sees. If there is such a thing as an “inclusivity of discernment,” I’d say Bill Cunningham  has it.

No one I know would call Cunningham a “holy” or a “saintly” man.  And yet, here is a man who has lived his adult life as a seeker of beauty and its human and vulnerable incarnations.  Such beauty is, by its nature, holy and of God.  Bill Cunningham is not the first poet to point out that the one “who seeks beauty will find it.” And when you see the human and flawed beauty he uncovers — as an artist — you, too, may think of Augustine’s prayerful lament: “Late have I loved Thee, Beauty so ancient and so new….”  IMHO.

See the movie.