Monday, April 04, 2011

My favorite of the films we saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival was "Bill Cunningham New York"

"Bill Cunningham New York" was my personal favorite of the films T and I saw at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

Bill Cunningham Was My Favorite at Wisconsin Film FestivalI gave it a "5" on my tear-out Audience Award Ballot. Enjoyed it on so many levels. Among other things, watching the 80-plus-year-old Cunningham tool around the streets of New York on his Schwinn is a great reminder that you're only as old as you think you are.

Cunningham is the last staff photographer at the New York Times to shoot film, and since he was well into his seventies when newspapers started converting to digital, he would seem to be entitled.

To watch him dance around his subjects with his Nikon FM2 is a lesson in why some people still prefer mechanical film cameras to digital. The FM2 is no longer made, but it was a relatively inexpensive Nikon that took the full range of Nikon lenses. Most pros used the much more expensive F series, but a few used the FM2 as a second body, as it was small and tough and durable and would still work if the battery for the meter died. For Cunningham, it was all he ever needed or wanted after stepping up from the Olympus Pen F half-frame with which he started taking photos of street fashion.

Still going strong in his eighties, and still using a bicycle to get around the city, Cunningham is a joy to watch working because of his obvious delight in what he does and the deftness with which he captures his vision. The camera supports his working style perfectly. There is no digital lag. There's also no lag for metering and focusing. He's shown shooting with what looks like a 35mm medium wide angle lens that he has prefocused. All he has to do is bring the camera to his eye and instantly click the shutter. It's real "decisive moment" street shooting.

At night, at the charity events and society galas he also photographs for the Times, his working method is equally simple and effective. He doesn't bother with high ISO film, wide open aperture shooting with all the depth of field issues that creates. He simply stops down to a medium aperture and shoots with a small, handheld off-camera flash.

He's insistent on getting his vision into print exactly the way he sees it. It's fun watching him bully his art director into laying out his photos on the computer exactly the way he wants them. The rest of the time, whether on the streets of New York or documentating the rich and famous, he has a disarming personal modesty. When he calls the film lab, this man whose photos are awaited eagerly each week by thousands of people around the world says, "I'm the guy who comes on a bike. You're developing some film for me..."

"Bill Cunningham New York" just went into limited theatrical release, so maybe it will come back to Madison. If not, you should be able to see it soon in video or on Netflix. It's treat for anyone interested in graceful aging, fashion, street photography, the New York Times, photography and/or all of the above. And to give it added timeliness, there's that funny business about David Koch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying Bill's photos via the online edition of the New York Times for a few years now. He reminds me of an expert bird watcher taking photos of his beloved subjects. His modesty verges on selflessness, but he is adored the world over. I was so happy to see this film about him in Madison. - blue cheddar, registered "slob" and amateur fashion fan