05/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Cunningham Documentry Opens New Director's Film Festival at MoMA

On Wednesday, a posh crowd filed into MoMA for the opening night of the 39th New Directors/New Films series, a collaboration of the museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. As he would for any such opening, the New York Times society and style photographer Bill Cunningham in blue jacket snapped away, capturing the well-turned out and a la mode.

Eschewing the red carpet where another type of party photographer had the likes of Anna Wintour and Carmen dell' Orefice posing, Cunningham waited at the entrance for a lady in a tiered hat, a brocade coat, some elegant, eccentric froufrou the merits of which only he could discern. New Yorkers are used to his trend spotting preoccupation, except that on this special night, the film was a documentary about him. And not only hadn't he seen "Bill Cunningham New York," he disappeared before he could. As the producer knowingly introduced, "He's allergic to attention."

Less biopic, more homage, this portrait of an artist, a first feature by Richard Press, is also a history of New York. One of its great pleasures is a subplot about the artists' residences above Carnegie Hall where Bill Cunningham, now 81, has lived in a file cabinet lined cubicle --bathroom down the hall-- for his entire career: as a milliner under the name William J, and fashion photographer for Details, Women's Wear Daily, New York Times, from the end of World War II till today, as those spaces are being converted to offices. We see footage shot by Andy Warhol of his neighbor Editta Sherman's private performance in tutu and feathers of "The Dying Swan," as well as her photos of Warhol, Elvis and Dali. At 98, she will be the last to be relocated to some fine apartment elsewhere, but still.

Editta Sherman joined the MoMA celebration, carrying a 1978 publication, Facades, photography by Bill Cunningham with Sherman as model in period dress, bustled and corseted. On hand too: frequent Cunningham subjects Patrick McDonald and Kenny Kenny.

Bill Cunningham may be attention phobic but ladies who dress are not. Anna Wintour-Cunningham has been photographing the Vogue editor since she was a teen-- says, "One dresses for Bill." Naturally the challenge of dressing for this night was nerve-wracking. Alas, my vintage Moschino cocktail number with Roy Lichtenstein print failed to catch his eye, even though it had others shooting throughout the night. An aficionado of haute couture, he must have known it was only the designer's bridge line, "Cheap and Chic."

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