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. “The Times of Bill Cunningham” and the 2011 documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” are probably the closest things to Bill Cunningham memoirs.

“The Times of Bill Cunningham” 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. 

Cunningham 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.

2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Stevenson Lost & Found’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

James Stevenson
James Stevenson in “Stevenson Lost & Found” (Photo courtesy of Salient Films)

“Stevenson Lost & Found”

Directed by Sally Jean Williams

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 10, 2019.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many people despise or distrust big-city “liberal” media types for being “hypocrites” and “out of touch,” then this documentary about illustrator/author James Stevenson (best known for his illustrations for The New Yorker and The New York Times) is a perfect microcosm to show why there’s so much animosity toward mainstream corporate media. In an era where “liberal” media outlets, now more than ever before, are in the business of exposing sexism and racism, there are large segments of the “liberal” media who ignore these problems in their own companies, and don’t question that the people they choose to elevate to the top aren’t exactly a diverse group.

Things are slowly changing, but Stevenson represents the “old establishment” of media that takes for granted that being a white male automatically comes with privileges that shut out other people who don’t fit into that demographic. It’s the type of people who live or work in one of the most racially diverse cities in the world, and yet they spend decades or an entire life not having any close friends outside of their own race. They live in such a bubble that while they spend a lot of time in their media jobs pointing fingers at all the horrible racists and sexists in the world, they fail to see that they’re not part of the solution, and they might be part of the problem.

That’s not to say that Stevenson was a racist, but it’s very telling that the only people interviewed in this documentary are white. The people in his inner circle—including his closest colleagues at The New Yorker, The New York Times and Greenwillow Books—are all a homogenous group of New York media types who clearly think of themselves as elite intellectuals. It’s very obvious that in his long life and career (he remained employed by The New York Times until his death in February 2017 at the age of 87), Stevenson chose to be close to only a certain type of people, which is a shame because he was in a position that allowed him access to a much broader view of New York and the world. He wasn’t a rank-and-file member of the media. He had prestigious media outlets as platforms that most media people don’t have, and his job at these media outlets was to make social commentary in his work, albeit through comedic illustrations.

Stevenson is interviewed for this documentary, which gives you an idea of how long it’s taken for this movie to finally get a public screening through its world premiere at DOC NYC 2019. A lot has changed in the media landscape since Stevenson died. The New York Times and The New Yorker have been at the forefront of breaking #MeToo stories. Many more women in all walks of life, including the media, are starting to stand up for their rights and no longer tolerate sexism and other forms of bigotry.

It shouldn’t take just the #MeToo movement to point out sexism, and yet this documentary (whose title is inspired by Stevenson’s  work in the “Lost and Found New York” column in The New York Times) fails to address the fact that Stevenson’s illustrious career was the direct result of ingrained sexism in the media that gave and (in some cases) still gives the best opportunities to men. If you don’t believe it, think about how rare it is for a woman to become an illustrator at prominent newspapers and magazines. It’s not because there aren’t talented and qualified women who can do this type of job. Even if they apply for this job, chances are they won’t get hired for it.

Stevenson, who was educated at Yale University, talks about starting his media career as an office boy for The New Yorker, a magazine that Stevenson describes as having “snob appeal.” He then got promoted to being a joke writer. When he discovered that he had a knack for illustrating (he had no formal training), he became a combination of a joke writer and illustrator. It was basically a career path that owed a lot to luck, talent and connections, without any of the struggles that a woman or person of color would have experienced. We’ll never know if Stevenson ever really understood how opportunities could have been handed to him because of his race and gender, because he was obviously not asked to reflect on it in this film.

He also doesn’t talk about mentoring anyone, which is a little strange, because Stevenson wrote several children’s books, some of which are mentioned and shown in the movie. And yet there’s no sense that he was interested in helping young people achieve their dreams through mentorship or charity work. This documentary is so fawning toward Stevenson, that if he had done any significant charity work, it would have or should have been mentioned.

His first wife, Jane, was also an artist, but like most women of that era, she sacrificed having a career to raise a family. She and James had nine kids together, and some of their children are interviewed in this movie. Having this large family put James under such an enormous financial burden that his kids say that he often had “explosive anger” toward them. Stevenson acknowledges this flaw too, and he seems remorseful that he wasn’t a better father. But nowhere does the film address why he and Jane decided to have so many kids, knowing they would have a hard time affording such a large family.

And while Stevenson talks a great deal about all the pressure he was under to be the family’s breadwinner, nowhere does he acknowledge if Jane (a fellow artist) had any career ambitions outside of raising a family, or if he was ever supportive of her having a career, even if it was to help pay their bills. He clearly had the connections to help her get work as an artist, but all he says in the movie is that she channeled her creativity into being a nurturing mother. You get the feeling that the filmmakers never asked him these questions. And if they did, they should have put it in the movie.

Jane and James split up around 1980, and their divorce had long-lasting effects on the family. He eventually remarried (to Josephine “Josie” Merck, in 1993), and stayed in his second marriage until his death. Merck is also interviewed in the movie, but she doesn’t offer much insight, other than having the role as Stevenson’s adoring and doting wife who helped him recover from alcoholism.

“Stevenson Lost & Found” is very much a “bubble” biography that falls into the same trap that many authorized documentaries tend fall into when they’re about someone who has a certain level of fame: The filmmakers are so concerned about wanting the celebrity to like the film that they don’t ask hard questions or show how the celebrity’s life fits into a larger cultural context. It’s very easy to do a documentary as a star-struck fan. It’s much harder to be a more objective filmmaker and shine a light on some unflattering truths. A biography isn’t an “intimate portrait” if you just interview a small group of people in the subject’s inner circle, because that narrow view often makes the biography very superficial indeed.

Yes, Stevenson talks about his alcoholism in this movie, but nowhere do we hear how having this disease affected his job. Did he show up to work drunk? Was he tardy or absent because of his alcoholism? And if so, did people make excuses for him because of his clout? Did his work colleagues or supervisors know about his drinking problem and try to help him get treatment? These are all questions that are not asked in the movie.

Yes, Stevenson opens up about problems in his family (alcoholism, mental illness, divorce and possible verbal abuse of his children), but they’re framed in that bubble of not acknowledging how lucky he was that none of these problems ruined his career. Stevenson was no doubt part of a “good ol’ boy network” that protects its own and will condemn other people for making the same mistakes or having the same flaws and problems. Because the documentary doesn’t ask any real, probing questions and lets Stevenson control the narrative, it’s clear that director Sally Jean Williams wants this documentary to be a love letter to Stevenson instead of a truly insightful biography.

And although Stevenson’s work was based in humor, the movie barely scratches the surface in how his work was also meant to be social commentary, and yet he remained oblivious to addressing a lot of uncomfortable social issues. During Stevenson’s long career, New York City experienced many social ills and tragedies, such as the Son of Sam killings; the Central Park jogger rape case and the Central Park Five who were wrongly convicted of the crime; the World Trade Center bombing; 9/11; and Eric Garner’s chokehold death by a NYPD officer. Stevenson acknowledged some of these issues in his work, but the movie shows that Stevenson avoided a lot of commentary about the city’s social tensions over race and class, and mainly focused instead on more light-hearted concerns for the privileged set. It’s yet another example of living in that bubble that doesn’t really like to include or acknowledge non-Caucasian people in this very racially diverse city.

As for Stevenson’s own background, he says he went to a “radical” high school that allowed the students to have a lot of creative freedom. His family and friends talk about how close he was to his mother, and how distant he was from his father, who used to be in the Army and was frequently away from home. Ironically, Stevenson said one of his biggest regrets is that when he became a parent, he also was a frequently absent father because of his work. His father ended up being an architect, and is described as “formal” and “stern.” Stevenson relays an anecdote that probably influenced his career ambitions. He said his father once told him: “I don’t care what you do, as long as you do it better than anyone else on earth.”

Stevenson should not be criticized just because he was a white male who benefited from racism and sexism in his chosen profession. He was obviously very talented and worked very hard for all the success that he had. And despite the flaws in his personality (no one is perfect), he was an upstanding person who never abandoned his family. All of that should be commended, but not at the expense of exploring why an exalted media person who was supposed to be an observer of the world through a New York City lens chose to shut out a fascinating amount of diversity he could have had in his own world.

There are many talented artists in this world, but a truly great artist is one who goes outside comfort zones, pushes boundaries, and uses any position of power as a platform to help others who aren’t as fortunate. Stevenson was clearly not that kind of artist. In fact, the documentary points out that he was very resistant to change and different points of view. According to his former colleagues at The New Yorker, he and some other old-time staffers quit the magazine because they couldn’t stand working for Tina Brown, who made sweeping changes when she was editor-in-chief of The New Yorker from 1992 to 1998. Coincidence or not, she was also the first (and only) female editor-in-chief in The New Yorker’s history.

The filmmakers of “Stevenson Lost & Found” missed an opportunity to present his story in the social context of why he ended up in his privileged position and why an illustrator whose job was to provide social commentary chose to surround himself with a very limited social circle. If Stevenson had a diverse group of close friends of different races and backgrounds (it’s obvious that he chose not to), his world view would have been much more culturally informed. And by “close friends,” that means people who you vacation with and who are welcome in your home anytime, not co-workers or colleagues you only interact with in a business setting.

The documentary doesn’t even have Stevenson’s thoughts on the current and future state of the media. In this day and age of many print media outlets consolidating or going out of business, it’s become increasingly rare for anyone in the media to expect job security for decades at the same outlet. Perhaps Stevenson, who had the same employer for decades and spent most of his career in the heyday of print media, couldn’t relate to what younger generations of media people are experiencing, and maybe he didn’t care to comment on the problems of modern media. Or maybe he just wasn’t asked. We’ll never know, because it’s not in the movie. And in the end, with more people expressing their distrust of the media, this movie shows that just like in society at large, success in the media isn’t really about being “liberal” or “conservative.” It’s about being “privileged” or “not privileged.”