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Why Everyone Should Watch “Bill Cunningham New York”

The light-hearted documentary follows the late Bill Cunningham a.k.a the "Godfather of Street Style Photography" and his work at The New York Times.
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If you’re a New Yorker or a fashion week attendee, it’s likely that you’d have bumped into Bill Cunningham at some point, and if you have, it’s likely that you have a story about him to tell. Tributes to the legendary photographer were all over social media following his passing last weekend, and they’re still pouring in. A petition to rename his go-to spot on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue to “Bill Cunningham Corner” has amassed over 6,000 signatures. It’s clear that throughout his over 40-year career as a street photographer, Mr. Cunningham had touched many lives, however briefly. Yoyo, who met him a few seasons ago in Paris, could sense his humility and kindness in their short exchange.

I’ve never met him. I tried to find him during my first tip to New York City, but I didn’t succeed. Maybe I got the street wrong, or maybe Mr. Cunningham was darting from street to street at that time. For a man his age, he moved uncommonly fast. Yet, after watching Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary by Richard Press and The New York Times’ Philip Gefter, I felt like I knew him. Not in the deluded, fan girl sort of way. God, no. More like if I ever saw him on the street, I knew I could go up to him without feeling intimidated or embarrassed. His character spoke through the screen.

After watching the documentary, I went around telling friends with the slightest interest in fashion, New York or culture, even, to see it. Street style has become so prevalent in our Instagram-led lives – so many of our #ootds are modelled after the idea – it’s only right to discover the man who was right there at its inception. Mr. Cunningham is not called the “Godfather of Street Style Photography” for nothing, you know.

But more than a history lesson, Bill Cunningham New York is something I go back to time and time again because of how inspiring it is and all the life lessons it contains. Mr. Cunningham’s passion for his work is incredible. A few minutes in and you see him, an 80-something, running across the street to get his photo. When he sees an interesting shot among his rolls and rolls of negatives, the joy on his face is like that of a kid on Christmas morning. You’d think that he’s seen everything at his great age, but Mr. Cunningham still knew how to get excited.

Then there’s his philosophy of not taking money for his work. “You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,” he says in one scene. He was never in it for the money. He was in it for the pictures, the clothes and for himself. When asked why on earth he was taking pictures at his own award ceremony conducted by the French Ministry of Culture, he replies, “You think I’m going to miss a good picture?”

Mr. Cunningham also led a very simple life, which is something we can all learn from. It’s very hakuna matata, if you think about it. Famously frugal and modest, the former milliner was almost always in the same blue work jacket. If it rained or snowed, he added a beat-up poncho. “Why buy a new one? It’s only going to tear anyway, so you repair the old one!” he explains as the camera films him sticking duct tape to his poncho. Mr. Cunningham liked capturing extravagance and spectacles, but he didn’t like it for himself.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway comes at the part where Mr. Cunningham is asked about his impending move out of the iconic Carnegie Hall, his longtime residence. In a situation like this, people usually get very sentimental and nostalgic. Mr. Cunningham, however, chose not to fret. “So what? Inconvenient, but otherwise…you can’t interrupt your life with that nonsense.” It’s a simple passing remark, but a big life lesson all the same.

More than anything, Mr. Cunningham had a zest for life that was far greater than what people half or even a quarter of his age have. We mourn the loss of an icon, but we also celebrate the full, joyful life that he led. You’ll be in our hearts, Bill.

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