The Times of Bill Cunningham Review
April 23, 2020 | Written by Alex Sumas, Illustrations by Nadia Naeem
The Times of Bill Cunningham, directed by Mark Bozek, is a documentary that is both marvelous and eye-opening. The film highlights the life of a remarkable man who is unknown to many outside of the fashion world. Cunningham, with his camera and keen eye, was fashion’s great documenter for over 50 years, until his death in 2016.
Much of the content of the documentary comes from a recently unearthed interview Bozek had with Cunningham, conducted and filmed in 1994. Bozek was supposed to interview Cunningham on camera for a simple ten minutes after Cunningham had won an award. Instead, the interview went on for hours, and the conversation spanned Cunningham’s entire life.
Illustrations by Nadia Naeem
Originally from Boston, Cunningham was born into and raised by a family of conservative Catholics. At age 19, he moved to New York City, and the documentary covers his remarkable journey from there. From working at Bonwit Teller, a luxury department store, to designing hats, to visiting Paris fashion shows while in the army, to working at the high-end boutique Chez Ninon, Cunningham’s story is incredible and peppered with icons in fashion history. He hand-dyed the dress Jackie Kennedy wore at President Kennedy’s funeral and even had Marilyn Monroe as a client.
What Cunningham was best known for, however, were his photographs. A friend of his gave him a camera and, as Cunningham put it himself, “suddenly all the doors opened.” Cunningham ended up working for The New York Times for nearly 40 years. In the Sunday edition, Cunningham had a two-page spread to document what New Yorkers were wearing. To him, it was a dream come true. He took to the streets on his cheap bicycle, clad in his signature blue jacket, with his camera always at the ready.
As demonstrated in the interview, Cunningham was a light himself. He lived for the thrill of fashion. The documentary is as wonderful as it is not because of revolutionary directing or editing, but because of Cunningham’s spirit. Even in his old age, he was so thrilled by fashion and his job documenting it that those watching him can’t help but smile. “Why would I want to retire,” he said. “I’m having too much fun.”
Yet despite his glowing personality, there was an introverted and sensitive side to him. It seems as though Cunningham saw himself as not worthy of his status. “I am not a real photographer,” he said again and again throughout the film, fretting over not having gone to school for photography.
Twice during the film, Bozek asked questions about the sadder and more difficult things Cunningham had seen over the years. Both times Cunningham would crumble immediately, even breaking down into tears at one point. One second he was beaming and talking about his passion, and the next, he was overcome by emotion. This kind of earnestness is a rare thing to see, especially in people with his success.
Cunningham was adored by the fashion world and greatly mourned after his passing. As put by Vogue’s Anna Wintour, “we all get dressed for Bill.” The documentary was narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, and Cunningham’s photos are shown throughout. The biggest celebrities, the classiest brands, and the most exclusive events are on full display. And in every photo with Cunningham himself, there is a camera in his hand and a beaming smile on his face.
If he were around to see it today, he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t understand why it was about him, and he wouldn’t want the attention. However, now that he’s gone, it seems more important than ever. Cunningham’s gifts deserve to be shared. His gift was not just the way he saw fashion, but his outlook on life and the way he approached others. Captured in this intimate footage, his humility is something viewers will never forget.