Tuesday, April 12, 2011

bill cunningham: new york — a review


Some (or many) of you won’t know who Bill Cunningham is.

But in a city like New York, where there is so much fakeness, social climbing and narcissism, and such a display of wealth and excess among the upper classes — have you counted how many wannabes are wearing Christian Louboutin shoes simply because the cherry-red undersides are so recognizable? — this man’s story is one of such searing simplicity and honesty that it brought tears to my eyes. A couple of times.

To start at the beginning: ever since we stepped on Manhattan soil, found an apartment and signed up for The New York Times, my single most favourite page of the entire week was and is the Sunday paper’s “On the Street”, photographed by Bill Cunningham. It’s a collage of images, mostly in jewel tones, of how people in the street creatively interpret the designer trends that are slavishly followed in clothing store displays, fashion magazines, on TV, the internet, YouTube, You Name It.

Now there’s a movie about the photographer behind the photography.

Ever since he was a boy who went to church on Sundays and loved to size up the hats and gloves and high-heeled pumps in the pews in front of him, Cunningham’s eye sought out the unusual. He wanted individualism, flair, imagination — not the cookie-cutter types who are dictated to today by the “fashion experts”. (Dahling, you weren’t worth your Jimmy Choos this last winter if you didn’t own an ankle-length camel-coloured coat.) Like all the other lemmings in camel coats. As some of the industry people interviewed for this documentary marvelled, it took Bill Cunningham to spot the real trends — the fashion ideas that stuck; that were appealing and wearable; that could be adapted and modified to suit the individual.

Since Cunningham’s been a New York institution for truly decades, I assumed he was a little long in the tooth. But …… 82 ?? This man rides a bicycle — his 29th, actually, as the ones before it were stolen. That’s what happens when you stay in New York too long. His trusty two wheels take him fearlessly into the teeth of the city traffic to Fifth Avenue and the 50s, where he darts and crouches with his old camera (no digital technology for this gentleman), clicking impulsively at the dandies and innovatively-styled trendoids on the street. Anna Wintour of American Vogue commented “we all dress for Bill…”. I’ve even spotted him myself, crouched on a sidewalk in his beret, training his lens on tens of pairs of feet as they marched across a pedestrian crossing — my ruby-red Converse high-tops included.

He lives like a monk. He wears a blue street-sweeper’s jacket (it has plenty of pockets), a plastic rain poncho (patched and repaired multiple times), eats frugally and drinks coffee out of paper cups. And he sleeps in a tiny cramped apartment, on a cot hemmed in by filing cabinets that house his life’s work of photographic negatives. (It was one of the last rent-controlled artist’s studios in the venerable Carnegie Hall; he has since had to relocate.)

Yet Cunningham spends most evenings darting amongst the dripping jewels, glittering gowns and svelte tuxedos of high society, photographing the elite for the social pages and posterity. His asceticism and moral standing are such that he refuses to share a meal with them, denying himself even a glass of water (there are 24-hour bodegas and delis for that). Which is where I got so choked up. A man of such simple tastes, with such ethics, and a desire never to hurt or insult anyone but treat everyone as an equal. In a city where each is for himself, on a hamster’s wheel of self-promotion and striving to be recognised.

It’s a movie so genuine, it’s positively uplifting.

It took the French to honour him as a chevalier of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. America was still sleeping. Now, of course, there’s this superb movie, directed by Richard Press. And these days he lives in a high-placed apartment with his own kitchen and bathroom, and big windows facing Central Park South.
But before moving in, Bill Cunningham asked that the kitchen cabinets be dismantled and removed to make way for his photographic steel filing units.

There's simply nothing more to say.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

kim kardashian vs. barack obama

Yes, yes, I know . . .  right now there are a lot more crucial things going on around us and needing our serious attention. Earthquakes, a tsunami and nuclear fallout in Japan. Unrest and rebels busy overthrowing governments in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. A threat to our oil supplies. The end of the world in 2012 if the Mayans are to be believed.

Yet the scariest thing about this world we live in, courtesy of last week's New York Times Magazine, concerns a survey done on the Ten Most Influential People on Twitter.

In the finite period of the survey, Barack Obama had 6,531,868 followers, Kim Kardashian had 6,032,559.
Obama's influence factor was deemed to be 83; Kardashian's 81.

Who's Kim Kardashian? Oh, come on, admit it. You know.


P.S. Just in case you didn't know, on Twitter Lady Gaga is the most followed person in the world, pipping even Justin Bieber to the post.  7,941,444 followers to be exact.

Obama's got some work to do.

steel roses on park ave.


Even when the snow crunches underfoot, spring blooms eternal on Park Avenue . . .

Well, that was the case this winter, anyway. For a couple of months now, giant steel and fibreglass roses have sprouted from the centre-island of one of Manhattan's chi-chi Upper East Side avenues, known in spring and summer for its massed flower displays.


And because the weather hasn't exactly been conducive to a leisurely stroll along the sidewalks, camera in tow, it's taken me this long to go gaze at the soaring stems and peer at the bugs crawling between the fibreglass petals. The gorgeous roses, sealed with bright marine paint, are the work of artist Will Ryman and decorate Park Avenue between 57th and 67th Streets. He obviously has a sense of humour, as the blooms and stems are populated by green aphids, ladybugs, black beetles and bumble bees.
(Actually, the artist is quoted to have said he wanted to introduce a dark element to the pure beauty of the near-perfect blooms.)