In Mark Bozek’s new documentary The Times of Bill Cunningham, we see Cunningham in 1994, being interviewed by Bozek off camera. Bozek took that tape, added a ton of Cunningham’s photographs from before and after the interview, and made a rather interesting documentary. There has been a documentary made about Cunningham already entitled Bill Cunningham New York by Richard Press, which I haven’t seen. I now intend to, for comparison’s sake.
Bill Cunningham was born to a conservative Catholic family in Boston in 1929. Early on, Cunningham knew he might be interested in fashion when he got distracted by the women’s hats in church. He was able to become a milliner in the 1940s after working at Bonwit Teller in New York. Going by William J., he made hats for Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, and many famous or high society women.
“Cunningham had lived several different lives by the time he got his camera in 1967, but it was then that he had found his niche.”
During his career as a milliner, he worked with Sophie Meldrim Shonnard and Nona McAdoo Park at Chez Ninon, a New York custom fashion house. They were responsible for a lot of Jackie Kennedy’s show, and Cunningham remembers dying a bright red dress black for JFK’s funeral. After working with Shonnard and Park, he wrote a fashion column for Women’s Wear Daily. Cunningham had lived several different lives by the time he got his camera in 1967, but it was then that he had found his niche.
Cunningham, in the interview with Bozek, is very self-deprecating and never admits that he has a talent or even that he is a photographer. He considered himself to be a documenter of the world around him. He never had an ego about himself, and I think that’s an understatement. He lived in the same tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall studios for over half of his life, sleeping in a twin bed amongst all his negatives and other documents. He never accepted even so much as a glass of water from the people he was photographing, let alone anything more extravagant.