04/15/2011 01:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York: High Fashion In Plain Clothes

When I worked at the New York Times I saw Mr. Cunningham now and again around the office. We never spoke, because he didn’t know me and I didn’t dress well, but on occasion we shared an elevator, or a smile and a nod. I found this joint history reason enough to see the film "Bill Cunningham New York." And with documentary festival laurels from Nantucket, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, and Abu Dhabi, it promised cultural nutrition, if not a good car chase or a broken heart.

Certainly, outside of the fashion world, few people know all that much about the 80-something-year-old who has for decades run around the streets and galas of the city taking photographs of people’s clothes. Inside New York, of course, and inside the self-selecting economy of those society boldfacers who spend their tipsy evenings sucking in their cheeks and elbowing each other out of photographers’ frames, to suggest that Bill Cunningham might not be of ubiquitous acclaim would be sacrilege.

Providing insight into the man’s work are scenes with Anna Wintour, propped regally in a cream-colored armchair, a dapper Tom Wolfe, David Rockefeller and Brooke Astor, when she was alive; we see inside the gilded benefits, the diamonds at the necks of the upper-upper-crust. Ambiguously gendered aspirants, with kohled eyes and perfect legs, swoon on the street for the chance to be acknowledged by one man’s lens.

We all get dressed for Bill,” says Wintour, whose hair, even on the big screen, achieves the inanimate perfection of a natural history diorama.

However. To my left, the other night at the IFC Center, sat a young couple about whom I made an immediate, non-scientific, and extremely biased presumption: That she, rather than he, had dictated the choice of this evening’s show. He wore jeans and a lumberjack shirt. He had a thin mustache and his hair in a ponytail, and the moment after the theater lights dimmed, he crossed his arms about his chest as if to say: “Let’s get this over with.”

Bill Cunningham seemed a funny little subject. Outside of his work, a brilliant splash of color on full pages in the Times, he does not look a bit like a kingmaker. Small of body and old as the hills, he rides the streets on a bicycle with a camera around his neck. He wears the same blue jackets that French street workers wear, and when his rain poncho rips, he mends it with tape.

He smiles a cheeky smile, develops film at a neighborhood store, and sorts through rolls of negatives rather than digital files. He attends church weekly, calls everyone “child,” and for many decades lived in a matchbox of a studio above Carnegie Hall.

And he loves nothing more than finding strangers to photograph, be they haute couture or civilian. His favorite fashion shows have always been the streets.

The best storytelling contains a moment when something essential breaks open, and within it we see something true. If it’s done right, it enriches both the subject, and its audience—however varied.

It happened behind a podium at an award ceremony in France. Cunningham, awarded by the nation to receive the honor of Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, could hardly keep still at his own party—by nature he is not a guest. As with any other gala, he dressed for work and shot photographs of the clothes he found lovely.

When he finally took the stage to accept the title, a medal newly pinned to his scruffy lapel, he spoke a little in English and a little in French. He didn’t say much until, suddenly, his voice faltered. “It is as true today as it ever was,” he said, and then he began to sob: “He who seeks beauty will find it." The theater fell silent. And beside me the lumberjack wept.