Review: ‘The Times of Bill Cunningham,’ starring Bill Cunningham

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bill Cunningham at a Patou Collection in Paris in 1970.
Bill Cunningham at a Patou Collection in Paris in 1970. (Photo by Jean Luce Huré)

“The Times of Cunningham”

Directed by Mark Bozek

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” chronicles the life of celebrity/fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who came from a middle-class background but rubbed shoulders with society’s elite for most of his career while still maintaining a connection to street life.

Culture Clash: Cunningham kept his integrity in an increasingly tabloid-oriented media landscape, and in his early career as a milliner, he experienced sexism in this female-dominated part of the fashion industry.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people interested in a fascinating story about how a hat-designer-turned-photographer became one of the most respected figures of fashion and celebrity media.

Bill Cunningham at a fashion show in Paris in 1971
Bill Cunningham at a fashion show in Paris in 1971. (Photo by Harold Chapman/Topfoto/The Image Works)

If you’re aware of the most prominent American photojournalists of the 20th century, then you already know who Bill Cunningham was or where you were the day that you heard he died. Cunningham, who spent most of his career as a New York Times photographer, passed away from a stroke in New York City on June 25, 2016, at the age of 87. He never retired from working. And he was a rare fashion photojournalist who didn’t limit his work to one segment of society. He captured a wide variety of cultures, from haute couture lifestyles to street life of everyday people.

The insightful and somewhat worshipful documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” which revolves around a rare 1994 video interview that director Mark Bozek did with Cunningham, takes a chronological look back at Cunningham’s life story. Sarah Jessica Parker provides voiceover narration. Because Cunningham was the type of photojournalist who didn’t seek attention and glory for himself, he rarely gave interviews. This documentary is probably the closest thing to a Bill Cunningham memoir.

The documentary consists almost entirely of archival footage, including some never-before-seen photos taken by Cunningham. In Cunningham’s own words, we hear about his childhood, growing up in Boston in a strict Catholic family. From an early age, he had a fascination with women’s hats. As a teenager, he worked as a sales clerk at the Boston location of luxury department-store chain Bonwit Teller. At age 19, he dropped out of Harvard University to move to New York City and pursue a full-time career in fashion.

When he moved to New York City to live with an aunt and to pursue his fashion dreams, it’s no surprise that, after a brief stint as an ad associate for Bonwit Teller, he became a milliner, first for Bonwit Teller and then striking out on his own. Women in New York’s high society, as well as Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford, became his clients. His fashion career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, when he spent some time in France, and then he left the Army to return to New York in 1953.

However, even though his talent was recognized, Cunningham said he faced a lot of sexism because being a milliner was traditionally a woman’s job. And he was initially afraid to tell his family back home in Boston that he was in the fashion industry, so he began his career using an alias: William J.

Cunningham eventually was fired from Bonwit Teller, and he says in retrospect, his dismissal from Bonwit Teller was the best thing to happen to him, because it led him to start his own milliner business. He charmed his way into renting a studio space for a big discount, even though he hadn’t proven himself yet as a successful entrepreneur. Through his hat business, he met Bernadine Morris, who was The New York Times’ fashion critic at the time. She introduced him to a whole new set of clientele and eventually played a role in Cunningham switching careers from milliner to journalist.

But during his hat-designing days, Cunningham had some memorable moments, including times when actor Marlon Brando would hide out in the studio when he was being chased by female fans. Bill also remembers that writer Norman Mailer and his third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, shared the studio with him. And his most famous neighbor was photographer Editta Sherman, who later did some modeling for Campbell in his early years as a fashion photographer. Cunningham also remembers meeting former King Edward VIII of Great Britain and his wife, Wallis Simpson. Cunningham describes him as charming, down-to-earth, and willing to put people at ease instead of using his royal lineage to intimidate people. 

Cunniningham closed his hat shop in 1962, and he began working at the New York City boutique Chez Ninon, which catered to the wealthy. As for which type of fashionistas impressed him the most, Cunningham says it wasn’t the Hollywood celebrities (he thought most of these stars didn’t have style in real life), but the New York high society women who were the ones with the most elegant style and best fashion taste. Jackie Kennedy was one of his favorite clients. Cunningham says that the pink Chanel outfit that Kennedy wore on the tragic day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated was actually not a Chanel original but a knockoff from a Balenciaga outfit.

Just like at Bonwit Teller, Cunningham was eventually ousted at Chez Ninon, and he says it was because the women who worked at Chez Ninon weren’t entirely comfortable with him as a milliner because he was a man. It was around this time that Cunningham got his first professional photographer’s camera, in 1967. He worked for a time as a fashion critic for Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune, but photography turned out to be his true love.

He began taking photos of New York street life, but the photos of celebrities are the ones that got him the most attention. (Cunningham never considered himself to be part of the paparazzi, because he didn’t stalk people.) In 1978, he took a famous photo of Greta Garbo, who was a recluse at the time, while she was walking on a New York City street. The New York Times published the photo. And from that year onward, he worked for The New York Times until his death in 2016. It was during his long stint working for The New York Times that Cunningham began to wear his signature item of clothing: a blue jacket.

In the documentary’s video interview with Cunningham, he shares a lot of his thoughts on fashion, by saying that fashion can be described in three categories: what is shown, what is written about, and what is worn. “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I think of myself as a fashion historian,” he says. He also says that he doesn’t have a favorite era in fashion because “fashion makes people feel good. As long as there are human beings in the world, there will be fashion.”

The first time that Cunningham covered the Met Gala (the annual fashion fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute), it was during the era when Diana Vreeland was editor-in-chief of Vogue. He chronicled the Met Gala, for 11 years when it was under Vreeland’s supervision, not only through photos but also through audio recordings and notes. The documentary includes a rare audio recording of Vreeland and Andre Leon Talley talking during preparations for a Met Gala. The one Met Gala preparation he didn’t cover extensively was the one in 1976, which had the theme “The Glory of the Russian Costume,” because Vreeland and the Russians clashed too much over the exhibit.

Speaking of conflicts, Cunningham also remembers how his presence wasn’t always welcome when he would take pictures. He tells a story about how the head of a perfume company (he didn’t say her name) called the police on him because she was sure that Cunningham was a pickpocket posing as a photographer. Although he was able to avoid being arrested, the incident was so unnerving that he remembered it in full detail all those years later.

One of the highlights of his career, he says, was being at the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973, when French designers and American designers who represented fashion’s A-list competed against each other in a fashion show to raise money for the Palace of Versailles in France. The French designers were Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. The American designers were Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein. (The Americans won.) Cunningham said that Burrows was his favorite designer at the event because his designs were truly unique from everyone else’s.

Cunningham undoubtedly got to experience many glamorous events and take photos of many celebrities, but he felt it was equally important to document the street life of everyday people, including the homeless. He also covered news events happening on the streets, such as protests and parades, including the first Pride parade in New York in 1970. He breaks down and cries a few times during the interview: When he talks about things he saw on the street that he didn’t have the heart to photograph (he didn’t go into details in the interview) and when he talks about the devastation of the AIDS crisis.

Throughout the interview, Cunningham also shows his boyish wit and humility. He constantly downplays the importance of his work, and says at one point, “I’m not talented.” He also says that he’s basically shy, so he never got over being nervous about working on the street or meeting new people.

Cunningham was also very eccentric and very frugal, since he we would always stay at cheap hotels when he traveled for business, while many of his colleagues and peers would travel first-class. His only spending indulgence was for his art collection. Cunningham, who was famous for getting around by bicycle, also reveals his philosophy on how he chose which bikes to get: “The cheaper, the better.”

And he also explains what he loves most about his work: “The freedom.” He adds that “New York is an extraordinary city,” and The New York Times was like a “blank canvas” where he could display his work. And the hardest part of the job for Cunningham? Spelling people’s names correctly.

Although Cunningham doesn’t talk about it in the documentary, Parker’s voiceover narration mentions that during his lifetime, Cunningham was extremely generous with his money, by donating millions to AIDS charities and the Catholic Church. When Cunningham’s close artist friend Antonio Lopez was dying of AIDS and didn’t have health insurance, Cunningham bought a painting from Lopez for $130,000, and then gave the painting back to Lopez.

The one thing about Cunningham that the documentary doesn’t discuss is his love life. He never married, didn’t have kids, and he never publicly disclosed what his sexuality was. Whatever his sexual orientation was, it’s obvious from the documentary that Cunningham was married to his job. If he ever did have any serious love relationships in his lifetime, they definitely would’ve been less of a priority for him than his work. The documentary shows that he spent so much of his waking hours devoted to his work, that it’s no wonder he didn’t seem to have any time to settle down with someone special.

Although the documentary certainly reveals a lot about Cunningham (except his love life), it comes across as a little too fawning. He was certainly a beloved media figure, but the documentary could have been more well-rounded by interviewing people who were his rivals to get their perspectives. And because the basis of the documentary is a video interview that he did in 1994, the interview looks extremely dated. Had the interview taken place in a later decade, Cunningham would have been able to offer his thoughts on how digital technology and the Internet have transformed the photography profession. However, the documentary does have a treasure trove of archival footage, which is one of the main reasons to see this movie.

Cunningham’s legacy is a reminder that it’s possible to be a street photographer and be a well-respected gentleman, which is a rare quality when photographers who do their work on the streets are rewarded for being pushy and aggressively obnoxious. And in this day and age of smartphones and social media where people can curate and Photoshop their own images any way that they please, Cunningham represents a bygone era where photographers had more gatekeeper influence in the fashion industry. As more journalists than ever before have a tabloid “look at me” mentality, Cunningham always maintained the ethics of a true journalist, by observing and reporting truths, instead of trying to put the spotlight on himself.

Greenwich Entertainment released “The Times of Bill Cunningham” in New York City on February 14, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release will expand to other cities in subsequent weeks.