Saturday, March 3, 2012

Art In New York

Bill Cunningham’s photographs have graced the pages of The New York Times for decades. He is the quintessential street photographer, spending his days bicycling the busy thoroughfares to catch candid shots of fashion on the avenue. He is both a cultural anthropologist and documentarian of beauty. In his blue smock and working stiff’s clothes, he snaps away, catching exquisite intricacies of what is fashionable this season.

Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films, 2010) delves into his life as well as his work, both of which are so interconnected that one cannot separate one from the other. His is an ascetic’s existence. His apartment in the Carnegie Hall building is packed with file cabinets and boxes, containing thousands of negatives amassed during his daily shoots, of which only a few wind up being published on the pages of the newspaper. His bed rests on milk crates, and is little more than a mattress with a blanket. His apartment does not even have a bathroom. All of his time and energy—and he has a lot of the latter for a man in his 80s—is spent shooting on the streets during the day, and traveling to charity and fashion extravaganzas at night. He rarely takes a break, even to eat. His life is consumed with his work, and he would not have it any other way. This clear in every frame of film.

Herb & Dorothy (Arthouse Films, 2009) profiles Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who since the 1960s have been collecting Minimalist and Conceptual Art. Although unknown when their works were first sold, many of these artists have gone on to extraordinary careers. The couple is not wealthy and never have been; they purchased their collection on her librarian’s salary and his wages at the post office. Their cramped, cluttered apartment has the look of a hoarder’s, a fire hazard in the very essence of the term.

After decades of collecting, the couple gave their collection to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. They refused to take any money for it because they considered themselves caretakers of the works. The museum catalogued and transported the materials, and then set up an annuity for the pair as a way of compensating them at least in small part for the extraordinary gift. The couple took the money and turned around and purchased even more art. The end result is that their collection has been parceled out across the country to nearly every major contemporary art museum, and will be available to patrons for years to come, long after the Vogels are gone. They are an eccentric and intense couple, single-minded in their pursuit of art. They are not posers or members of high society. They are, like Cunningham, religious in their devotion to their work.

That is the most inspiring aspect of the two films. Bill Cunningham and the Vogels do not do what they do for money or fame. In fact, if no one recognized their work, they would continue their efforts in anonymity. They are passionate and strange, unfazed by what others might think of them. With Cunningham, he refuses to shoot with digital equipment, wandering the streets with his old film camera and developing film at a one-hour photo shop. An assistant scans his pictures and files them for his stories. The Vogels collect art that some might consider junk, but they have a unique vision for what will be considered invaluable works down the line. Their taste is unwavering. Both documentaries are insightful and inspiring.


  1. You're correct about this post's subject(s) being right up my alley. I've known about Cunningham for many many years and felt about him and his work the way you articulate so well, but the Vogels I only knew of vaguely, so thanks for informing your readers about their unique contribution to what makes life so worth it, and the documentary about them.

  2. Thanks for reading and responding, Michael.

  3. I'm not a huge fan of Cunningham's subject matter or of the minimalist art that the Vogels collected. However, after seeing both films in the past few months, I admire all of them tremendously. And I thogut the Cunningham film was especially touching in how it handled his personal life, such as it is.

  4. I agree, Kevin. He is really child-like in many ways, and when he breaks down when discussing his family, I was especially moved. I also admire his nerve approaching people on the street as he does. He definitely is a character, and even though his subject matter is not my thing either, I found the documentary fascinating.

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