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Respect Yourself: Bill Cunningham

Duncan Cooper spends a lot of time on the internet. Every other Monday, he pays tribute to the hours spent with original video and audio. This week he celebrates the photographer Bill Cunningham, his new favorite paradox.

I saw Bill Cunningham New York a week ago and I can't stop thinking about it. Cunningham is the 82-year-old photographer behind The New York Times' "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" columns, venues he invented to showcase his candid fashion photography. He's a fragile, smiling antisocial who sleeps between file cabinets, refuses paychecks to gain creative autonomy, has never been on a date, wears the same garbageman's smock every day, rides his bike everywhere, doesn't drink and hardly eats. He's a recluse, but here's a film quoting French fashion managers to say Bill Cunningham is "the most important person on Earth." It seems by totally, sacrificially devoting his life to the craft of on-the-street fashion photography, Cunningham has achieved the perfect prolific artist's life.

That's the goal, right, the perfect artist's life? I want to believe Cunningham has it, but no matter how I try to privilege total selfish ambition, as if that’s how to become a legendary and successful person living wholly in pursuit of art and (therefore) happiness, seeing Cunningham ride alone on his bicycle, seeing him always pulling away, on that bike totally in control and totally alone in life, always shot inaccessibly from behind… his isolation is always going to be unsettling. There's something really primitive about that, and it puts everything into question. Every smile is darkened by the undeniable loneliness of riding a bike by yourself at night. How can you trust ascetic happiness, the satisfaction of denying bodily needs to focus totally on the joy of “seeking beauty,” as Cunningham puts it, when the sight of asceticism is so profoundly tragic? A few reviews of the film describe Cunningham as a lovable grandfather figure—and maybe I kept choking up watching it because he reminded me of my own dead grandpa—but it's a broken analogy because Cunningham's family starts and stops with him. To try and understand Cunningham that way violates this disciplined solitude he’s built his life around. There's something very unsettling about such an endlessly charming loner. I can't trust his happiness, and I can't trust the idea that such focused devotion is the way to total joy. So often with art we define success by obsession, and I don’t know how to deal with that.

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Respect Yourself: Bill Cunningham