Must See: Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York Trailer

"The best fashion show is definitely on the street," says Bill Cunningham. "Always has been and always will be."

The words ooze with the confidence of a fashion expert, and after decades of snapping pictures of bold hats, spiky heals and inventive necklines for his New York Times' column "On the Street," that is exactly what fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is.

"No sooner does Bill call it a trend—observe it, organize it, and publish it—than it's a trend," Linda Fargo, vice president of visual merchandising for Bergdorf Goodman, once told The New Yorker. In the same article, the esteemed magazine deemed Cunningham's column "as much a portrait of New York at a given moment in time as any sociological tract or census."

"We all get dressed for Bill," Vogue editor Anna Wintour has said.

But the cameras have turned. Film director Richard Press and producer Philip Gefter approached Cunningham in 2000 with the idea of making a documentary about him. It took eight years to convince the reluctant subject and then two years of production, but Bill Cunningham New York appeared at film festivals last summer and will be released in select theaters starting March 16. The Hirshhorn Museum will be hosting a special (FREE!) advance screening tomorrow night at 8 p.m.

It turns out that the photographer is as fascinating as his body of work. At 81, Cunningham continues to bike around the harried streets of New York City, frequenting favorite spots like the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in search for what he calls "stunners." His "stunner" could be Ms. Wintour in a fashion-forward ensemble or an interesting walk of life he encounters in one of New York City's many parades. "I go to different places all the time. And I try to be as discreet as I can. My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way, too," wrote Cunningham in "Bill on Bill," the only bit of autobiography he penned in the New York Times in 2002.

The photographer has been called a fashion monk, but a 2009 profile of Cunningham in The New Yorker described him as being "closer to an oblate—a layperson who has dedicated his life to the tribe without becoming a part of it." He wears blue workmen smocks like those worn by street cleaners, for instance, and retires at the end of the day not to a chic loft but a cot amidst filing cabinets in his artist's studio.

I could go on, but I'll save some details for the viewing experience!

"Bill Cunningham New York" will be shown in the Hirshhorn's Ring Auditorium. Doors will open at 7:30. Seating is limited and available on a first-come basis.

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