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Bill Cunningham is obsessively interested in only one thing, the pictures he takes that document the way people dress. The 80-year-old New York Times photographer has two columns in the paper's Style section, yet nobody knows who he is.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
You could call Bill Cunningham eccentric for his habit of refusing to take money for his photos, but that misses the point: as he makes clear, he does it because he doesn't want to be owned. He lives in a cupboard sized storage room, filled with filing cabinets full of the negatives of every photo he's ever taken (must be millions) on the streets of New York, essays on what people are wearing. Sounds a bit niche, but he has a pictorial column in the New York Times that it's much more mainstream than niche. He has a second column which covers the social scene.

His apartment is one of the last (rent controlled) artist studios in Carnegie Hall, threatened with eviction in a battle with the Hall.

Cunningham is 80, but frisky and lively, sharp and enquiring. He snaps people as they walk, attracted by their wardrobe, whether elegant or excessive, strange or stylish.

This is a fascinating portrait of a unique character who has built his own world out the worlds of others. Quite unlike poseur photographers, he dresses, eats sleeps and talks simply; he gets around on a push bike. And he smiles a lot. The one question that stops him in his tracks, mystteriously, is about his going to church every Sunday. Religion, it seems, has some deep significance for him but we don't find out what.

We get to smile a lot too, especially when the filmmakers take a minute to go through Shail Upadhya's wardrobe, with him as a willing model. This man has the most eccentric rack of outfits you'll ever see, including one made from his lounge suite cover and matching ottoman. But that's nothing compared to some of the others. Upadhya, by the way, is a former UN diplomat from Nepal.

His photos, says one interview subject, are evidence of what fashion actually is at any given time. And quite an insight into life at the same time. At least in New York. And maybe Paris ... the filmmakers follow him to Paris for Fashionweek and we learn more about Bill by his comments and observations, as well as getting a lovely picture of Paris as the HQ of haute couture - but Bill's focus is still on what's wearable by real women.

Even when he's presented with the serious honour of Director of the Legion of Arts & Letters, he wears his blue working jacket and spends the night taking shots, as he always does.

Interestingly, Bill was a milliner (William J label) but he is really a columnist as much as a photographer. In fact, he says his pics are not photography but observation, not the art of photography. He had a falling out with Women Wear Daily over the paper using his photos for their in / out fashion column. He maintains everything he sees and shoots is in. Ethics drive this man and his decisions. And he seems remarkably happy. A happy maverick.

Review by Louise Keller:
It's not what I think but what I see, says Bill Cunningham, 80year old New York photographer who has allowed his camera to observe and document people, clothes and fashion for his entire life. This fascinating documentary takes a fly-on-the wall look at an unpretentious and unselfconscious creative observer whose keen eye has captured trends, statements, individuality and personality on the streets of the city that doesn't sleep.

By the look of things, Cunningham doesn't get much sleep either: he has spent much of his days navigating his bicycle through the city streets by day and covering functions by night. The film is not only a portrait of a unique, dedicated artist, but a reflection of the times for the past 40 years. I was mesmerized throughout this wonderful documentary that embraces life and reminds us that beauty is waiting to be found.

It is energising and inspiring to watch a man who obviously loves what he does. It is fashion that obsesses him. As a boy he used to go to church to look at the women's hats. He still goes to church, but for different reasons now. He has many admirers - and we hear from some of them including Vogue's Anna Wintour, who explains that he sees something on the street or on the runway that everyone else misses. It won't be long before it is a trend. Others who talk about him are Iris Apfel, who describes herself as being the world's oldest living teenager and Patrick McDonald, the dandy, who won't dream of facing the world without his cosmetic beauty mark, eyeliner and hat.

Cunningham's photographs are evidence of what fashion is at any given moment in New York life. In 1978 he photographed Woody Allen and Diane Keaton with the Annie Hall look; in 1987 the new thing was people carrying water bottles; 1983 showed the bare shoulder look; underwear was the next big thing; 1997 was the beginning of baggy pants.

There's much more too including an insight into the man himself, who to most of the people that he has photographed over the years has remained an enigma. The telling moments come right at the end and are indicative of the kindness and affection with which he has portrayed people all through his professional life. This is a rare and special film that should be savoured.

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(US/France, 2010)

CAST: Documentary featuring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Michael Kors, Tom Wolfe

PRODUCER: Philip Gefter

DIRECTOR: Richard Press

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tony Cenicola, Richard Press

EDITOR: Ryan Denmark

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 3, 2011

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