Bill Cunningham and the Nature of Happiness

bcny_gallery1[1]I saw a great documentary yesterday, which happens to be nominated for an Academy Award.  Bill Cunningham New York , about the photojournalist, photographer and artist Bill Cunningham.

For those of you who aren’t avid readers of The New York Times Style section, Bill Cunningham has been chronicling the uppper crust social scene with his camera for decades.  At the same time, he has been devoted to street fashion, looking for trends as he scours New York City on his bicycle.

He is now 82 years old, and still photographing the New York scene, and still riding a bike (his 29th, when the movie was filmed, because the preceding 28 had all been stolen.)  At the time the documentary was shot, he was being forced to move out of the artists’ studios over Carnegie Hall.  His could hardly be called a studio–it was more like a closet.  No kitchen, shared bathroom in the hallway.  He slept on a pallet on a board, propped up on plastic milk crates.  The tiny room was lined with filing cabinets filled with his film.  He eats cheap meals at delis ($2.50 for egg on a roll and coffee.)

After viewing the documentary at the Hastings-on-Hudson Library there was a long discussion.  I came to the conclusion (probably premature) that most Hastings residents were artistic, shrinks, or artistic people who had been to shrinks.  There was a lot of discussion of projection, repression, denial, etc.

This came about because Bill lives an ascetic life.  He has almost no possessions.  He has never had a romantic relationship.  He would not discuss his sexuality.  He has never married or had children.  He goes to Mass every Sunday.  The only moment in the documentary when he choked up was when he was asked how he felt about his religion.

He is utterly consumed by photographing the scene in New York.  He seemed to me a supremely happy person–he loves his work, and he is immersed in it, albeit to the expense of all else.  But he is happy, or at least he seemed that way to me.

So we sat on our fat middle-class asses and discussed the nature of his happiness, and some felt he was secretly sad and could not admit it.  And it seemed to me we were all wrong.  The mystery of his life is his.  And he laughs and loves what he is doing.  And he is free to do what he wants, thanks to the New York Times.  The world will be a smaller, darker place when he is gone.

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