All Articles
All Articles
CULTURE

Bill Cunningham New York

CULTURE

Bill Cunningham New York

Documentarian Richard Press on chasing NYT's living photography legend

by Laura Neilson
on 04 February 2011
billcun3.jpg

Though shooting and editing "Bill Cunningham New York" only required two years, it took filmmaker Richard Press eight years before that to convince his subject to green-light the project.

Cunningham, traversing and capturing every social milieu of New York with an excited and democratic eye, has become recognized over the decades as one of NYC's greatest living visual historians. But his private nature and determination to remain an invisible documentarian himself has made it nearly impossible for anyone to turn the camera his way. Even after agreeing to let Press and his two colleagues make their film, there was an inherent "catch me if you can" feeling throughout the process. But, as Press noted, Cunningham's reluctant and eventually trusting nature with his filmmakers became a part of the story itself—just as much as Cunningham's relationship the strangers he photographs creates a vivid and telling portrait of New York City.

Here, Press talks to us about his first documentary effort and the admirable, if difficult, tenacity of his subject.

"Bill Cunningham New York" will open in New York on 16 March 2011 at Film Forum for and in Los Angeles on 23 March 2011.

billcun4.jpg
What was your first introduction to Bill Cunningham?

I was freelancing at the Times as an art director and I first met Bill that way. I actually did his page for him. And my partner and husband Philip Gefter was a photo editor and wrote about photography, so he had known Bill for years.

Why did you decide to do this film?

In a certain way, the biographical facts of his life were not as interesting to me as trying to capture his spirit and that joy, and something more abstract. So I talked to Philip and told him that we should do this together, and we dragged Bill into a conference room at the New York TImes and told him we wanted to make a movie about him, and he just laughed. He couldn't entertain the idea. It was so ridiculous to him. He didn't think what he did was valuable—to anybody but himself.

How did you convince him to let you do this project and follow him so closely?

We just kept talking to him about it over the years. One day I said, "Bill I'm going to be out on the street and have a camera on me.'" I got him shooting on the street and he ignored me. That was eight years ago, and it was just a day's worth of footage in the drawer. And then about two years ago he was being given an award and he didn't want to accept it, so I offered to cut together this footage I had and showed it, and he saw it and really liked it. I think that was the turning point. He sort of got that I got him and I understood who he was. It was a combination of that, his relationship with me and with Philip that we were able to make the movie. The short version is that we wore him down.

billcun2.jpg
When did you start shooting?

We started shooting September 2008, around Fashion Week. It was a year of shooting and then a year of editing.

Your other films are narratives. Had it occurred to you to do a documentary before?

I never thought to make a documentary. It's just that he was such a strong character: how he lived his life, his ethics, his spirit, his obsessive dedication to his work. So in a way he is like a narrative character. I approached the movie less like a documentary and more like a narrative, with the way I structured it and the way it was edited. It felt more like early Robert Altman, sort of "Nashville"-like. There were all these eccentric characters, and at the center of the collage, there was Bill. I would say Altman was the biggest influence in how I was thinking about this movie. And I was also trying to mirror Bill's column, which is a collage of all these different elements.

billcun1.jpg
What were some of the challenges posed when trying to film, especially on the streets of New York?

Once Bill agreed to be filmed, it wasn't like he just gave us access. It was always a negotiation. There was no crew. It was just me, Philip and Tony Cenicola a staff photographer at the New York Times, who had never actually shot a movie, but who Bill knew and trusted, joining me as cinematographer. The three of us would try to be as invisible as possible. I was living at the New York Times for years, waiting to have his cooperation and hanging around where he was working—we had a desk nearby—and there were months of negotiations to be able to follow him at night. And then slowly over time, he realized we weren't going away. When he let us into his apartment, it was a miracle. No one had ever really been in his apartment, especially with a camera. And then he introduced us to his neighbors. Over time, I think he respected our doggedness and he kind of recognized himself in that. That's how he works. He's just constantly working and never giving up.

Would you say your filming process was a reflection of his own method?

For him being invisible is the most important thing for doing his work—that he can just stand on the street and be quick and invisible to get the shot that he wants. I tried to mimic that in the way I shot it.

How did you choose to handle the political issue of Bill and several other artists being forced out of the Carnegie Hall apartments, which occurred while you were shooting?

Continue reading...

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft
Loading More...