Bookending an Iconic Photographer’s Career

A brother’s love sparks and preserves a distinctive oeuvre

By:
Katy Smith,

Luxe and highly saturated images were his trademark, and he brought surrealism to fashion photography using scale and color. Now, Bill Silano’s photos will expand the fashion collection at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, thanks to his brother, George Silano.

“When you see a Bill Silano photograph, you know it’s his work. You don’t have to search for a credit,” says George Silano.

From the 1960s to the ’80s, Bill Silano’s photos appeared on many Harper’s Bazaar covers as well as editorial spreads for Italian, French and British Vogue; French Elle; Mademoiselle; Town and Country; and Glamour.

A New York native, Bill Silano died at age 80, and his life and works were celebrated in his 2014 obituary in The Villager: “Silano’s unique vision and dedication propelled him to the heights of the ultra-competitive world of fashion photography at a time when the art of the craft ruled.”

William Silano, untitled, c. 1970. William Silano Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Soon after choosing CCP as the home for the photographer’s prints and working materials, George Silano made a second gift in his will, representing a significant portion of his estate, to support fashion photography in his brother’s honor. He takes particular pride in “bookending” his brother’s career through both gifts, because he helped launch it.

George Silano, a well-known cinematographer and director, now retired, piqued his brother’s interest in photography when he set up a darkroom as a child. Later, returning from military duty, he gave his brother an Army Field Manual of Photography.

Shortly before his death, Bill Silano told a writer from the magazine Glass that he read the book cover to cover and learned much about the technical aspects of photography.

“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 learned to realize my vision.”

As a young adult, Bill Silano was a bank teller. At his brother’s suggestion, he took a photography course from Alexey Brodovitch, the famed art director of Harper’s Bazaar. It became clear that the young photographer had an innate talent and a tremendous passion for the craft, but he lacked connections and experience.

“He was struggling in Manhattan, trying to get going, and I took him to Europe as my assistant,” George Silano says.

Bill Silano joined his brother on a job shooting an industrial film for Volkswagen in Germany. He used the opportunity to spend time in Paris, where he met influential people and his first photos were published. 

When he returned to New York, he began his decades-long relationship with Harper’s Bazaar.

“That trip turned him into what he became. And after he died, I’m the guy who got him into CCP. I’m very grateful I was able to help him in that way,” George Silano says.

A meeting with Chief Curator Becky Senf convinced George Silano that his brother’s original slides and working materials would be in good hands with CCP.

“It was because of Becky’s enthusiasm and her impeccable eye. When she saw Bill’s work, she understood it had a position in the history of fashion photography,” he says.

Fashion photography is a priority for the center, Senf says. The archive of Louise Dahl-Wolfe and a strong Richard Avedon collection were the existing cornerstones. Adding Bill Silano’s materials brings opportunities to make meaningful comparisons between the artists.

And fashion photography’s scholarly potential goes beyond visual disciplines, says Anne Breckenridge Barrett, the center’s new director.

“This acquisition adds new depth and dimension to our growing fashion photography collection and strengthens the potential for multidisciplinary scholarship across themes such as culture, society, gender roles and feminism,” Barrett says.

“I am thrilled that William Silano’s archive will be stewarded by CCP.”