I love documentaries. Considering how popular the Ken Burns series is on PBS, I’m surprised that more people don’t take advantage of the wealth of product out there.
Unlike Mr. Burns’ work, most documentaries are minimally funded, and lack the manpower, production values and famous voices that are his trademark. But what these smaller films may lack in bells and whistles, they generally make up for in content: often presenting a far grittier, highly personal, thought-provoking, at times disturbing― at times delectable look at life.
2013’s FINDING VIVIAN MAIER is a good example of a small but highly satisfying documentary. If you didn’t catch it while it was in theaters last spring, you’ll be happy to know that it’s now available through Netflix and other venues. The film is, for want of a better explanation, a tale within a tale within a tale. It is the fascinating account of one man’s search to uncover the story behind thousands of never-before-seen, truly incredible photographs, and the woman who took them.
Had writer/producer John Maloof, who bought a box of her negatives back in 2007, not had such an inquisitive nature, ability to recognize how truly special the photographs were, and a willingness to invest years of his life and money in the project, Ms. Maier’s work would have undoubtedly died along with her.
The photographs, most of which were taken in the 1950s and 60’s, are remarkable in the simplicity of their subject matter, and the stories they tell.
Mesmerized by her work, Maloof wanted to know more about her. A Google search provided no clues. Museum curators and gallery owners had never heard of her. It was only when he returned to the Internet some weeks later that he found a newly posted obituary notice containing the few clues that would take him on a road less traveled.
Maloof tells his tale in front of and off camera, beginning with the first in a series of circumstances that would change the course of his life, and the legacy of hers.
Vivian Maier was, by all accounts, an odd, – some would say eccentric woman with a questionable French accent: a woman who protected her anonymity as if she had something to hide. She worked as a nanny, residing in the homes of the children she cared for, often in a small attic room above the family’s living quarters.
Over the course of the film, Maloof interviews several of these now-grown children, who tell differing accounts of life under her charge. Whenever possible, he also talks with their parents, neighbors and local shop keepers―all of whom paint a picture of a woman who lived life well under the radar.
Eventually, his quest takes him to New York and Europe, as patterns emerge, and theories are refuted. But make no mistake, finding the real Vivian Maier was no easy task, as by all accounts she had no friends and never spoke of relatives, or her past. Few outside the children, were even aware that she had a camera, let alone amassed such a staggering amount of undeveloped film.
She kept these rolls and negatives, along with hundreds of old receipts, newspapers and snippets from her life in trunks and boxes stacked one upon another, upon another, upon another, from floor-to-ceiling. Maloof would eventually come to own, sort, print, and catalogue their contents, along with a curious assort of items retrieved from a storage locker literally hours before they were to be trashed.
Between the footage of the faces, places and objects that were a part of Vivian’s world, Maloof fills the screen with her mostly black and white photographs, each one more extraordinary than the last. A laborer grabbing a smoke. A car full of children. An elderly woman riding an escalator. A tousle-haired child clinging to her mother’s coat. A blind man and his dog. A shoeshine boy. A dirty spoon. Rows of newspaper-reading commuters on a train. A movie marque. Newsstand. Trash can―Each one more remarkable than the last. They are culled from a staggering number of images culled from 100,000 negatives, 700 rolls of undeveloped film, and 8mm and 16mm stock.
One of the important and never-to-be answered questions which Maloof and the people he interviews ponder is whether or not this very private woman would have wanted the attention bestowed upon both her work and her life. Opinions differ widely. Gallery owners, respected photographers and museum curators also weigh in, adding an additional layer to the story, which continues to this day.
As late as last September, former commercial photograph and attorney David Deal filed suit in a Chicago court, claiming that he had discovered Maier years before Maloof, and had located a long lost heir. The sad part of this story, aside from the fact that Maloof put so much of his heart in this project, is that the suit has put a temporary hold that could last for years, on her work being exhibited, sold, and generally enjoyed by others. The film, at least for the moment, endures. Don’t miss it.
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
It would be easy to assume that these two documentaries and their subjects are slightly different versions of the other. After all, both Maier and Cunningham could be described as single, eccentric, private, and talented photographers with a unique point of view. But summaries can be deceiving, and it would be a shame if you passed over one or the other, thinking that it was more or less a rerun of the first.
For starters, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more different personalities. Maier was an almost invisible presence, few knew her or about her. Her self-portraits contain not the slightest hint of a smile, whereas Cunningham is a Manhattan fixture. Hundreds know him by sight, thousands by name or by his columns in the New York Times. He is an approachable man who smiles easily. It is an almost silly, mischievous, child-like smile. If they were rolls of film, Maier would be 120 black and white, while Cunningham would be full-blown Kodachrome.
His story, as told by documentarian Richard Pratt captures Cunningham in mid-flight, seldom still, and always after that special shot, waiting to take its place in one of his two columns in the New York Times or weekly blog.
The first column, “Evening Hours”, covers the runways, parties and social events of the well-connected. The second, “On the Street” captures the trends, first takes and unexpected, highly creative fashions on the street, at small gatherings, clubs and yet-to-be-recognized fashion houses. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street”, says Cunningham. “Always has been, always will be.”
He is an equal opportunity “shooter”, which is, perhaps, why people from all walks of life seem to adore him. “He means so much to people like us” exudes a cross-dresser who has appeared in his column more than once. The same could be said by those on the far more traditional and pedigreed side of the social spectrum. Fashion, is fashion.
And so it is that Cunningham’s photographs cover the waterfront, giving the reader a unique perspective of what people in New York are wearing on any given day.
The film is loaded with examples of his work; candid shots of people in motion. Unlike many runway and studio photographers, he shies away from the outrageous catwalk clothes and stagnant, all-too-perfect posed shots of the well-coiffed, dramatically lit, highly made-up, alarmingly slim models, preferring to catch a spectacular bit of unexpected inspiration wherever, whenever.
But he is most at home on the street, where he sees how people take a designer’s piece and make it their own, or better yet, mix and match read-to-wear items, combining colors, textures, belts and accessories and turning them into something “totally new and fabulous”.
A whippet of a man, Bill Cunningham zips around the city on his trusty Schwinn,(his 29th, the other 28 having been stolen over the years), camera ready to roll at a moment’s notice. During the making of the film he turned eighty. Still going strong nearly five years later, it is obvious that retiring is not on this octogenarian’s list of things to do.
The film is as much about what he does as how he does it. Press and his crew to their best to keep up with him; filming his ‘day’ from the wee hours of the morning to the wee hours of the morning. By the time the film was put to bed, they had done an admirable job of capturing his spirit, watching him work, interviewing friends and fans, asking the right questions and getting some surprising answers.
“I was just interested in clothes: it’s probably a little peculiar.”
The photographer is, by his own admission, a workaholic: perfectly content to work day and night, eat on the run, and do without the things most of us need or strive for. He has, he says, never had or yearned for romance, a cozy home, or the kind of friendship where secrets are shared, and confidences kept. But make no mistake; he does have friends―and lots of them.
That said, even people who have known the man for decades, admit that they know precious little about him. Ask them where he hails from, what he does in his spare time, or what his political or religious affiliations are, and they shrug their shoulders.
What they can tell you is that back in the late forties and early fifties he was a haberdasher: his marvelous creations topping the heads of high society patrons and Hollywood’s reigning movie queens. But when the army called, he had to close down his one-man salon on the 10th floor of Carnegie Hall, and go to war. Upon his return, he found a new career, when a fellow photographer gave him a $39 Olympus camera. “Use it like a pen,” he said: “Like you take notes.” And so he did, taking his career in an entirely new and highly satisfying direction.
The few friends who have been to his Carnegie Hall hideaway describe it as a tiny place with rows of file cabinets taking up all but a sliver of a space just wide enough for a cot and narrow walkway. It is little more than a holding station, a place to catch a few zzz’s, file his negatives, wash, dress and move on.
"These are my filing systems, and this is my clothes closest."
It is unpretentious to say the least, with no kitchen or bathroom. Well, there is a bathroom, but it’s out the door and down the hall, an arrangement more like something you’d expect to see in a boarding house than the lodgings of a New York Times institution.
And he is an institution: known and admired by celebrities, fashion editors, designers and the city’s elite, as well as the white and blue-collar men and women, dandies and young things who make up 95% of the city’s population.
The word “icon” comes up frequently when those in the industry talk about Cummings. A mild mannered, unpretentious fellow, he doesn’t look or act like an icon, but you don’t want to contradict Vogue’s Anna Wintour, who uncharacteristically has nothing but praise for his work, and nose for “new”.
She and others in the know speak of him in glowing terms, admitting that he often spots fashion trends months before they do. “I sometimes will look at his pages in the Times or online and just be so amazed that he and I and my team and all the rest of the world we were all sitting in the same fashions shows, but he’s seen something on the street or on the runway that completely missed all of us,” she says, adding, “And six months later, that will be a trend.”
Out and about by eight a.m., the photographer is armed and ready to catch Manhattan’s workforce as they race from here to there, morning latte in hand, briefcase swinging, running shoes, flip flops, high heels or boots nipping at their cuffs. He snaps them dodging traffic, stepping out of or into cars, cabs and buses, jumping over puddles, and leaning against the wind.
“When it rains, it’s a whole different scene, or when there’s a blizzard is the best time. Things happen; people forget about you” he says. They don’t pose or primp. And so it is that his photos catch them in midstream: emerging from the subway, cooling off on a steamy afternoon, or gossiping with friends. Click click, shutter, wiz, his camera documents what he refers to as the reality of how people dress”, head-to-toe, back and front, zooming in on their hats, coats, shoes and collars: funky and fabulous.
The job requires a good deal of patience, with Cunningham waiting and watching for the next big idea. “It’s always the hope that you’ll see some marvelous exotic bird of paradise” he says, “meaning a very elegant, stunning woman, or someone wearing something terrific.” So it’s a waiting game. And, as Bill says, “There are no short cuts.”
After a long day on the street, Bill pauses briefly to drop off the day’s “catch” at a catch-all, hole-in-the-wall combination photo/copy/ FAX/ATM and Internet emporium, one of the few in town that still develops film, before grabbing a sandwich and cup of coffee and heading again.
During one such pit-stop, he lifts a couple of shirt-covered hangers from a filing cabinet’s handle and holds them up to the camera. “This is my clothes closest” he says smiling, but he’s not kidding. Like Little Orphan Annie and her red dress, Cunningham wears the same basic outfit day in and day out, save for a few accommodations to inclement or bone-chilling weather. Black tie, no tie, guest or honoree, he’s easy to spot in his trademark azure-blue cotton smock. When one wears out, he buys another on his next trip to Paris, where he first discovered the street sweepers’ uniforms years. Pressed, folded and packaged in cellophane wrap, they are hardly what you would call ‘couture’.
But that’s Bill: a man who films fashion, but is not encumbered by it. When his plastic poncho tears, he repairs it with masking tape. Why buy a new one he asks, when it’s going to tear after one or two wearings anyway? Why buy an expensive jacket, when his camera will no doubt rub against the material and ruin it? Why indeed?
He is a man of modest tastes and needs, and yet he is so at ease around those to the manor born, many assume that he comes from a privileged background. Hoping to put an end to the speculation, Pratt gently asks the questions that beg answers. And Cunningham answers them, though you can see that he is a bit uncomfortable talking about himself. He would much rather get back to the business at hand. Work is his play. Fashion is his passion. There is no time for affairs of the heart. Music or hobbies. Never was. “I was just interested in clothes” he says, “It’s probably a little peculiar.” And so, while others spend their nights at home with the family, reading a good book, or perhaps, taking in a show, Bill is out on the street, winding his way through the city on his bike, chasing the trends. Depending on the night, he may be covering a gala, or taking in the ambience at a small club or café.
Over the course of the film we meet some of his more colorful subjects. Among them―a former United Nations representative from Nepal, who stands by a rack of his outfits, pulling out or modeling one after another after another. “This is my alphabet suit” he says, sporting a white and black number covered in large black letters. Then, “This is my lollypop salesman suit”―a wildly colorful outfit patterned in endless rows of candy suckers. “When I wear this―” (he lifts a yellow and red Scotch plaid jacket from the rack), “people smile, and it kind of cheers them up a little bit.” And you smile, because you see in him and his outrageous outfits what Bill saw.
But it was Mr. Alphabet’s last turn at bat that made me laugh out loud. “This used to be my old sofa,” he says, with a nod to a rather unusual jacket. “My pants used to be my ottoman. “ It was, in my mind, at least in my mind, an homage to Carol Burnett’s famous Gone with the Wind sketch, where the comedian glided down “Tara’s” famous staircase wearing a pair of long velvet curtains – still attached to their curtain rod.
Sometimes truth truly is stranger than fiction.
The lollypop man and others like him make Cunningham’s day. He loves the fact that, with so many people sporting cookie-cutter looks, there are those who dare-to-be-different. It takes courage, he says, and he admires them for it. Perhaps because he is, in his own way as courageous as they are, daring to fly in the face of the very fashion he covers.
Interestingly enough, no one seems to care if he shows up at their black tie gala in that cotton smock, explaining that this and other eccentricities are part of his charm.
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK is a lovely way to spend an evening. And no doubt, while you’re watching it from your easy chair, perhaps downing a beer or glass of wine, bag of potato chips, or other munchies in hand, Bill will be combing the streets of Manhattan, armed with his trusty camera, looking for the big thing in fashion.
As for his apartment, by the end of filming, Cunningham―along with his ninety-six year old neighbor, received word that they would have to find another place to live in order to make way for more offices. She had been there since the 1940s, he, since the early fifties. Where such news would throw most people his age, Bill took it in strike. “You can’t interrupt your life” he says, standing outside the building taking pictures of his filing cabinets being rolled down the street to his new digs. Was he looking forward to living in a more traditional space? Ummm―maybe not. He laughs and says,
“Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom? Just more rooms to clean.”
But not to worry, according to a film footnote, Cunningham, “had his new landlord remove the kitchen cabinets and appliances to make room for his filing cabinets.”
Some things never change.