Dream-weaver – the surreal eye. Glass speaks to the extraordinary photographer Bill Silano

Dream-weaver – the surreal eye. Glass speaks to the extraordinary photographer Bill Silano

The extraordinary work of Bill Silano marked a new era in fashion photography, but having shied away from the spotlight for three decades Silano’s work and life has become the stuff of legend. Glass is privileged enough to present his first interview.

The life of Bill Silano seems shrouded in mystery, an astonishing fact given that he was one of the premier fashion photographers in the 1960s and ‘70s. Unlike every other prodigious photographer from his era, Silano retreated from the public eye, his images admired only by those fastidious enough to scour the pages of archive magazines. There have been no coffee table books, no global retrospectives, no interviews. Silano’s otherworldly images have been the preserve of an informed few.

Glass has been fortunate enough to track down Silano and privileged enough to be granted an interview, revealing this most elusive of individuals, a treasure trove of an uncommonly talented mind. His thought processes as captivating as his photographs: stunning, simultaneously surreal and sublime, and thoroughly thought-provoking. Presented below are Silano’s musings on his childhood spent in Long Island, New York, and the evolution of his artistic development and career. A stream-of-consciousness flow punctuated with razor sharp insight and wit, vividly bringing to life details from the distant past.

“My first indelible visual memories were as an infant: on brilliant summer days I often found myself ensconced in the safety of my stroller, positioned so that I had a direct view of the windows which were always open at our house by the bay, the sun illuminating the billowing white curtains. I was intrigued by the southern light forming constantly changing patterns on the thin fabric, which reverberated and transmuted on the ceiling.

Dream weaver Bill Silano

“Later, perhaps in the fall, the curtains were drawn back, and I could see the sky above a line of tall trees in the near distance. I was fascinated by their movement as they swayed in the wind, especially during storms, with varying degrees of grey clouds moving rapidly behind them. This was the beginning of my sense of the visual mysteries of nature, which I would later explore in more depth and mould into a matrix that helped guide my vision.

“My father was a talented amateur artist and I loved to watch him paint wonderful seascapes. Living near the bay as a young boy I spent many daylight hours roaming in the tidewaters amongst the sand, rocks, vegetation, and the living creatures that scurried away at my approach. It was all mysterious and visually exiting: the colours and shapes of a killi moving between some rocks and seaweed, against the sand; the undulating light moving across the surface of the water never failed to intrigue me.

“I realised that these experiences were never repeated, but were in a constant state of flux, from one moment to the next. The light changed and the tide changed, the fish changed, the seasons changed, and I changed. Yet, I wished the fish would just stay still, in that particular composition that pleased me the most.

“At that time the culture was enraptured in cowboy and Indian films such as John Ford’s Stagecoach [1939], and my friends and I re-enacted these scenes using cap pistols. I discovered by using forethought and especially stealth that I could make myself invisible, like the Indians did, letting the opponents enter into view and become targets. This started my interest in photography. I thought it the easiest way of capturing a particular moment in time.

“My older brother George had a darkroom in the basement where I became acquainted with the basics of photography. He was drafted into the Army where he became an instructor in the Signal Corps. One of the books he brought home was the US Army Field Manual of Photography. I read it cover to cover, and absorbed as much as I could at the time. It was written by the best minds, to be easily understood by those of lesser inclination. I found it incredibly informative, and tried to apply what I learnt to realise my vision.

“Army Field manuals are designed to instruct a soldier on the nuts and bolts of a particular subject, yet this one covered everything technical – lens, cameras, film, chemicals, lighting, etc. Combat photography never appealed to me; the military also didn’t. Yet, ironically, I was later called to service and became a model soldier, and very quickly rose to the highest Sergeant rank, simply because of what the Army loves: an expert marksman. It seems I have the right combination of eye- hand-coordination, as well as the focus and understanding of all the elements involved to be free and let instinct take over.

“When I decide to squeeze the trigger, it’s as if my will guides the bullet to the target. Luckily, for all concerned, my unit wasn’t called to fight and I only had paper targets to shoot. There’s a similar dynamic working when I take a picture, and, interestingly, the term ‘shoot’ is in common use for both activities.

“In grade school I was a bit of a loner, preferring to stand back from groups and observe the dynamics of their interactions through words, and most importantly, body language. Another student named Richard lived nearby and we went to his parents’ cellar, almost nightly, to listen to music played on his self built tube Hi-Fi equipment [new technology at the time]”

His two older sisters were fashionistas with neat piles of previously read issues of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue stacked up nearby. As an adolescent, it was natural to reach over to the piles and peruse the pages of elegantly clad females.

“I was immediately fascinated by the creativity, imagination, and presentation of the photographs. I decided to focus on becoming a fashion photographer. It also helped to have confirmation from my old friend, Nature. Standing outside my parents’ house I had a view of a nearby beech tree. Finding myself in a meditative state I asked the tree if this was the right direction to take. Suddenly all the golden fall leaves started to undulate in unison in the same pattern. As I had never seen this action before, or since, I took it as a yes.

“I became aware that the legendary Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar, taught photography and design at the New School, and I decided to take the last two classes he gave in the late 1950s.”

This serious, austere, sombre, hunched-over man with a cigarette getting constant attention from a mustachioed Russian mouth, sat at the head of a large table surrounded by bright, eager students on all sides, adulation and respect emanating from all present. Hiro, the class assistant, took attendance on a form [Hiro would go on to become a renowned fashion and still-life photographer at Harper’s Bazaar from 1956 to 1975.

According to Silano, “We both were published regularly, in the same magazine and at the same time, but we rarely met, let alone spoke. I did however feel that we respected each other’s work and in turn influenced each other to a degree.”] Brodovitch reviewed the previous week’s assignment placed in front of him at the table. He would then look at each picture, and invariably, violently throw them aside with contemptuous aplomb. Sometimes they would fly across the room, everyone docile to the master’s wishes, secretly praying that theirs would please him … and occasionally they did.”

In his last class, Brodovitch asked if he could hold on to some pictures that I had submitted and show them to his editors.

“I said yes, of course. It was an unspoken assumption, and a rare honour to have this great man show such interest, a gateway into Harper’s Bazaar, the pinnacle of creative excellence at the time. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, it became known that he was fired [from Harper’s]. The class ended. Ten years passed before I was brought into Harper’s again, this time by Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler, art directors of the magazine [from 1963 to 1972]. I did the finest work of my career at this time.

“After the Brodovitch debacle I met Peter Knapp, visiting Art Director of French Elle magazine – the most prestigious in Europe – at a party given by the founders of Ford Modeling Agency, Eileen and Jerry Ford, at their town house on the Upper East Side of New York. Peter said (with accent), “Whenever you in Paris, call me and we work.” As a result, my first editorial exposure was a cover, and 22 pages (quite impressive at the time). A model I used named Marianne later became known as Sarah Moon, the highly respected photographer. Paris was a wonderful city. I wore out all my shoes walking, as every time I turned a corner there was a new vista of beauty to behold. A bad meal at a restaurant was nonexistent.

“I moved to London as a stop-over on my return to the United States and ended up staying three years, moving into a flat in Eaton Square. Located behind Buckingham Palace in what had originally been a Victorian painter’s studio with glass walls, a sky light, and soaring ceilings, the space more recently became Noel Coward’s rehearsal studio, photographed for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and every other magazine published in London. I worked constantly, and London seemed to change overnight before my eyes from Victorian to Mod.

“Mary Quant designed the sensational Mini-skirt; the Rolling Stones and the Beatles erupted, along with photographers David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and Brian Duffy; Cockney lads rode the wave of anything British. I admired Bill Brandt above all others, yet Richard Avedon and Irving Penn represented the highest level of achievement. With their innate talent honed by constant activity and guidance, they were contracted to the best magazines of the era, which fine-tuned their work to create individual images of excellence that no one else could master, and never will again.

“The singular greatest compliment of my life occurred while meeting Penn for the first time. As we shook hands I introduced myself; his eyes responded with interest and locked onto mine, his left hand joining the prolonged grasp, and as I reiterated my recent conversations with others – a Penn opening attracted every photographer in town – I mentioned his widespread influence. Without breaking his grasp and looking directly into my eyes he said “You would be surprised at what I got from you.” If he hadn’t been holding me so tightly I might have fainted.

“I never put too much thought into an assignment. Mostly my imagination rather quickly came up with a concept for a shoot, as I was simply interested and aware of events that served as inspiration: moon landings, the Vietnam War, black holes in the universe, Woodstock, women’s liberation movements, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. Renaissance and Surrealist paintings also drew my attention and I absorbed the styles.

“Giorgio de Chirico [who pre-dated and inspired the Surrealists] had the most profound influence on me. I followed my instincts, considered the model, subject, clothes, shoes, hats, jewellery, cosmetics, and even perfume. If I was a bit stumped, I’d take it to bed and my subconscious would amalgamate everything. Arising I’d have the seed planted in my head, so I could take it to fruition.

“Only once do I remember being at a loss for ideas. I was asked to photograph a single shot of 52 colours of Estée Lauder nail polish for a Harper’s Bazaar editorial. The art directors suggested going to the factory and shooting colours passing through tubes during the manufacturing process. However, this wasn’t my cup of tea. Over lunch, after pulling off a succulent artichoke leaf, dipping it in oil and vinegar, and bringing it half-way to my mouth, I stopped. A light bulb went off in my head and I jumped away from the table shouting directions to my staff. I had it!!!

“A close-up studio shot of five hand models, bodies with arms extended and gathered around each other with hands bunched together forming a symmetrical shape with each of 50 different coloured nails visible. Ruth [Ansel] and the editor-in-chief loved it, I loved it, the models loved it, and everyone associated loved it. Bea [Feitler], for some reason, vehemently hated it, and to this day I still don’t understand why. Despite this, the image became one of my all time most respected pictures … thanks artichoke!

“I’ve always had the nature of an explorer, putting my foot into uncharted ground, observing, absorbing, responding, and avoiding repetition. Following Brodovitch’s maxim, ‘If you look in the camera viewfinder and see a picture you’ve seen or taken before, don’t take it.’ These words have always stuck with me and inspired me to take my work to a new higher and unique level.”

From the Glass Archive – Issue Four – Secret