WCS 2011: On Photography: Bill Cunningham New York and Smash His Camera

Bill Cunningham New York
dir. Richard Press | USA | 2010 | 84 mins.

Smash His Camera
dir. Leon Gast | USA | 2010 | 89 mins.

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham and über-paparazzo Ron Galella have a lot in common: they both make a living by collecting fleeting moments in time—necessarily catching their subjects unawares—and, in the process, have documented in minute detail the fashions, celebrity trends, and sensibilities of now bygone eras. To boot, they still both use analogue film. It is their points of difference, though—both as individuals and as photographers—which are most compelling.

Cunningham—now in his ninth decade,  and the fascinating subject of an incredibly entertaining documentary profile by Richard Press—has for many decades been the New York Times’ street-fashion photographer, and the writer (and more recently, narrator, for the web edition) of the Times’ Sunday Style column “On the Street” and its counterpart which documents philanthropic high-society gatherings, “Evening Hours.” For someone whose life revolves around fashion, Cunningham’s own sartorial selections are decidedly anti-chic: he gets around on a vintage Schwinn bicycle—his 29th, donated to him after having lost the previous 28, over the years, to thieves—wearing a blue workman’s coat.

When he goes to society events—and he often goes to several in a single night—he doesn’t drink anything (not even a glass of water) and eats beforehand, in order to not compromise his work, he says. He is a notoriously private person, and has very few close friends—except perhaps the few remaining tenants of the Carnegie Hall artists’ studios where he has lived (alone) since the 1950s, his possible eviction from which is explored at the end of the film. No one knows how he spends his free time, but we do know that he goes to church every Sunday—a fact nudged toward in one of the most moving, revealing documentary-interview segments in recent memory.

His cramped, tiny apartment is filled to the brim with filing cabinets that contain his life’s work; he sleeps on a small, fold-out bed—actually just a thin mattress atop a plank of wood—surrounded by decades’ worth of magazines and boxes of news clippings. This description probably makes him sound like a lonely old crank, but he comes across in the film as quite the opposite: an endearing, charming elder statesman type. As Lauren Collins notes in her 2009 New Yorker profile of Cunningham, “his vocabulary and diction…are those of a more genteel era,” to the point where you wouldn’t be surprised if he busted out some 1930s ‘carny’ slang just for the hell of it. Cunningham is seemingly unassailably upbeat: he seems to almost permanently have a smile on his face, and Press’ film makes his outlook on life nothing short of infectious. If, after seeing this film, this amazing man, his unexpectedly moving lifestyle, and his sunny, perky disposition don’t have you smiling, you probably have no soul.

By contrast, Ron Galella is something of a stubborn, grumpy and seemingly unapproachable stalwart of the paparazzi world. Neither calls himself an artist, but Cunningham and Galella photograph people with opposite ideologies in mind: one documents fashion trends regardless of who’s making them, and the other scrutinizes the private lives of (semi-)public individuals. A new documentary by Leon Gast—who made the 1996 film When We Were Kings, about the famous 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ heavyweight bout between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, as well as its musical counterpart, 2008’s Soul Power—shows, in Galella’s own words, how he was able to get some of the most arresting paparazzo photographs of the 1970s: essentially by bullying, intimidating and lying his way into events and buildings, and by occasionally breaching police and court orders.

The photos of which he’s justifiably most proud—and to which Gast’s film continually returns, between describing Galella’s various run-ins with stars, including the time Marlon Brando punched him in the face—is a series of snaps taken of Jackie O. on a windy New York afternoon. One in particular, of a windswept Ms. Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis, which Galella refers to as “Mona Lisa”-like, is, surprisingly, interesting from both a paparazzi point of view (i.e., you can see why it would have been worth lots of money to media outlets) and from a formal, photographic point of view (i.e., its composition lends it some artistic merit—not much, but some).

Gast’s is a far less vacuous film about fame than Adrian Grenier’s similarly-themed vanity project of last year, Teenage Paparazzo, chiefly it actually bothers to contextualise its subject’s work: in his prime, Galella may not have been valued as a photographer—and he still isn’t valued as any kind of an artist—but his work has, in recent years, been greeted by acclaim from certain sectors of the establishment. Museums and other institutions, usually the province only of those with artistic merit, are staging exhibitions of his work, mostly because of the époque-defining quality that his body of work has, with hindsight, attained.

An endless self-promoter and a camera-shy, jovial old man hardly seem like a good pairing, but these two documentaries actually complement each other very nicely.

Bill Cunningham NYC and Smash His Camera screen in the World Cinema Showcase, which finished today in Auckland and is on in Wellington until April 30th.