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'Bill Cunningham New York': Through the lens of an icon

Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York Photo Credit: Handout

No one has captured the scope and breadth of modern New York fashion more comprehensively than New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham.

For more than 50 years, the workaholic octogenarian, 82, has been a fixture on the city’s streets, in its Fashion Week tents and on the high-society party circuit, documenting the fashionable trends and whims among New Yorkers of all social strata.

Filmmaker Richard Press spent eight years convincing the notoriously attention-shy photographer to take part in “Bill Cunningham New York,” a documentary depicting the icon at work that opens at Film Forum today.

amNewYork spoke with Press about the film.

What drew you to Cunningham’s work?
Bill has dedicated his life to documenting the intersection of fashion and style and culture in New York for over 50 years. It’s photography, but it’s also cultural anthropology — if you want to know what New York was like in the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st century, you would look at Bill’s archives.

What has helped him produce such a monumental repertoire?
He’s maybe one of the only people in the city who traverses every social milieu. He’s as comfortable uptown with society women as he is with downtown fashionistas, drag queens. … He has chosen to live his life exactly on his own terms.

Once you got him on board, did things get easier?
The thing is, even when he agreed to do the movie, he never quite agreed to do it. It was still a negotiation constantly — he would [only] allow filming at certain points. There was a lot of waiting. I basically lived at The New York Times for a year with a camera.

How did shooting the film deepen your appreciation for New York?
One night I’m following him on a bicycle, and it’s 11 o’clock and I’m following him through Central Park. He’s on his way to the Waldorf Astoria, ... and I just thought, “You know, normally I would be home watching Jon Stewart or I’d be asleep, and here I am in Central Park … on this beautiful fall night, on a bicycle, following Bill Cunningham to the Waldorf.” And it was just really magical. ... This is his life.

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