The title of this blog may have led you to believe that I was going to write about the wretched drought in the American West or the plight of people in Third World countries. If you thought that, you would be wrong, but that’s okay because my intention is to make a point, but not about the insufficiency of life’s most precious necessity but of something else; truth.
Like water, truth has become a precious commodity in current society and that’s why when we find it, it may be startling, lead us to question its veracity or even mark it down as an example of unexplainable eccentricity. The truth I’m writing about today I don’t believe is in anyway devoid of honesty, but because of its scarcity it may be seen as somewhat eccentric.
Yesterday, after seeing a reference to a certain film, “Bill Cunningham New York,” in an article I was reading, I decided that I’d make an effort to view it and I did. Initially, when reading the article, I thought only of a documentary about an extremely well-known photographer for The New York Times, a man who covered both street fashion, fashion shows and swanky parties of the rich and famous in New York society. But I wanted to know more about him because the photos I saw were eye-catching. Not quite like those of Vivian Maier, but nevertheless somewhat unique and they drew me in.
You may not care a twit about fashion and may, in fact, toss it off as little more than ostentatious spending for the aggrandizement of those who have little else in their lives. Okay, fashion can be that but it can also be something more and that’s a means to either disguise or create the “self” that we wish the world to consider is the sum total of who we are.
Sure it’s artifice and it can be silly, quirky and horribly expensive but it provides a window into our individuality and, sometimes, an opportunity for the designers to actually have fun at our expense. Can’t you just see some of them laughing behind their hands at how foolish people can be or how gullible to take some of this stuff as honest to goodness fashion? It’s sort of like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Did you see the penis-revealing men’s fashions recently on the runway in Europe? I suppose it was the next step in outrageous enough to get more media attention than any true fashion designer could get otherwise. Remember Rudi Gernreich’s designs that uncovered women’s breasts? Shocker for sure. How many women actually wore that monokini? Few at best. But it got press and that’s what it’s all about. I wonder if he got the inspiration from Ben Affleck’s full frontal shot in “Gone Girl?” Well, it was a side frontal at best. Necessary to the development of the story line? No. Sure to get press coverage and questions on film junkets? Yes.
I wonder how Cunningham would have viewed that fashion show. Here is a man who, at the time of the filming, was 80, riding a bike all over New York City to photograph and go to parties and living in a tiny room in the now-gone artists’ studios in Carnegie Hall. No bathroom, no kitchen, no real bed and wearing a jacket of sorts that is worn by Paris street cleaners. Doesn’t that sound like an ascetic to you? Well, sure he is and when you hear him being interviewed about his beliefs about work and how he views it, you wonder if he’s a monk without one of those hooded robes. Everything about him leaves you with the impression that this man is all about the work and no one can buy or bribe his ability to show or not show something.
At Brooke Astor’s 100th birthday party (he was the only media guest there and Mrs. Astor specifically requested his presence), he refuses “a little fish” or “a glass of wine” or even a glass of water. Paraphrasing him, I’d say he would say, “It’s the work and if you don’t accept anything, no one can tell you what to do.”
How many people could honestly say that and actually stick to it? Today, it’s all about the money or the free goody bags or whatever other kind of loot they’ll throw at you to get something into a column, a film or on the Internet. Greed is all over the place and some people are so greedy you wonder if they have any moral fiber in their bodies. Complete sellouts for trinkets.
Twenty-six stolen bicycles later, Cunningham is finally forced to leave Carnegie Hall and accept an apartment in a much nicer location. The management at the famous music venue has decided that no one needs studio spaces for creative types and the two or three people, including Cunningham, must be out. New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg refuses to intervene in a landlord-tenant dispute and so it goes.
But Cunningham remains true to himself and his way of life. Management has to remove the appliances and kitchen cabinets so he can install his many, many filing cabinets with all those wonderful 35mm negatives and prints. I just wonder what’s happened in the five or six years since the film was made. He would be 86 now and I have never kept up on the society or fashion pages of the NYT because I read it online. I did love that incredibly over sized newspaper, but I, like so many others, have gone digital because it suits our lifestyles.
Something else I wonder. At one point in the interview Cunningham is asked about his going to church each Sunday. It is a moment of intense emotion that he struggles with for several painful seconds and the interviewer realizes and says they don’t have to continue with this line. He finally raises his head, pulls himself together incredibly and goes on to another question. But I am left wondering about that brief, cutting moment when all might have been revealed but no one could go there. I would have been cruel to do so. This, after all, wasn’t therapy, but a film about a photographer who has decided that he is responsible for his work.
No one can tell him what to do or how to do it. He did, earlier in his career after he decided to no longer design hats, tear up paychecks given to him by magazines for which he provided photographs. I can’t imagine how he survives in a city that can be outrageously expensive. But looking at how humbly he lives, it is understandable.
So, being true to one’s self or something else? You decide. I’ll just enjoy the work and leave the armchair psychoanalysts to their lofty pursuits.