CEDARBURG — Tony Cilento could never have dreamed that the little Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera his mother gave him as a gift nearly 70 years ago would have been his ticket around the world. But it’s been just that and so much more.
It’s taken him to the Vatican, Mexico with Mother Teresa, Medjugorje, an African safari, the United Nations, not to mention into the lives of thousands of people – celebrities and not – whose lives he documented with his camera.
Sure, the camera changed over the years, from the simple one-button Brownie Hawkeye, to sophisticated digital Nikons, but it’s been photography that has opened doors and provided opportunities to the longtime member of St. Francis Borgia Parish, Cedarburg.
Ironically, Cilento’s mother bought the camera for him as a way to help her young son communicate with others.
He has what is now known to be dyslexia, but at the time, “it was viewed as maybe somebody was a little slow. I didn’t like that indication that maybe I was a little slow, but it was difficult for me to communicate,” explained Cilento, 78, during an interview at his Cedarburg home. “I used to stutter a lot and believe it or not, as I’d look at a book to read, I’d see the letters flip back and forth.”
With his Brownie Hawkeye, Cilento, who grew up in East Rochester, New York, took pictures of his friends.
“I found by giving them or showing them these pictures that I took that lines of communication opened. They always say that a photo is worth 1,000 words. I found that became an avenue of communication for me. At that age, rather than it being a a hobby, it was a sense of being able to express myself.”
Cilento’s business acumen also surfaced during this period of time as he said he created a darkroom for himself and took orders from his friends.
“With that darkroom, I thought I was king of the hill,” he chuckled. “I used to get film from my friends and had a 24-hour service developing film. I’d make the pictures and charge 50 cents, but it probably cost me $2.”
The business side of the operation was never his strong suit, admitted Cilento, yet in the years that followed, he turned his talent with the camera into a thriving career eventually opening two studios in Milwaukee before becoming vice president of photographic development at Lifetouch, the largest photographic company in the world.
He came to Milwaukee to study at Marquette University where he earned his bachelor’s of science degree in psychology and art, and also studied at the Layton School of the Arts. After graduating from Marquette, he intended to return to the east coast, but at the request of some of his friends from the MU School of Nursing, he remained in town to photograph a wedding.
“From staying in Milwaukee that summer, I got involved with the Green Bay Packers organization,” he said, not realizing how revered the Packers are to Wisconsinites. In spite of all his photographic accomplishments, Cilento said it’s often his Packer connections and work with Vince Lombardi that draw the biggest sense of awe from Wisconsinites.
His time with Lombardi and the legendary coach’s drive for excellence also rubbed off on him, admitted Cilento, explaining that when he opened his first photo studio, “I wanted to be the best photographer in the world,” a goal he said he is still reaching for.
Photography by Cilento, his original studio opened on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee in 1962, followed by a larger building in 1976 on Capitol Drive in Shorewood, where he specialized in school portraits – especially senior portraits, weddings, children and other special events.
“Happiness isn’t success; success is happiness,” said Cilento. “If that statement sounds cliché, it’s something I always try to stress to younger people. I never felt I was an artist, I was a person who enjoyed bringing back the reality of family life, enjoyment, of the sentimentality. That’s what photographs are all about. People buy photos of their children or of events to remember and it captures time and stops it.”
Describing photography as recording a moment of time, Cilento said, “God put into everybody feelings of compassion and of love, and photography was a function of showing appreciation, of showing love.”
During this time, Cilento became the official photographer for Summerfest, photographing the likes of Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Diamond, Cher, Sting, Fleetwood Mac, to name a few.
Family life meant family experiences
Comparing the life of a photographer to a doctor, Cilento said in many cases, the photographer puts in more weekend and late hours because events such as weddings and concerts happen at night or on weekends.
Yet, even though he was busy, daughter Gina Cilento, 47, said her father was always there for her, her older sister, Christy; brother, David and mother, Maryann.
“He did work a ton of hours, but he always made himself accessible in other ways,” she said, recalling outings to Estabrook Park where “he taught me photography and to how to see the beauty around.”
She also recalled doing things “out of the box, where instead of going to a movie, we go to a play or show in Chicago … He did not just give us time, he gave us events and experiences.”
Ironically, Gina, a member of St. Stanislaus Parish, Milwaukee, said the family of the famous photographer does not have a single family portrait.
“The ironic part of it – it’s actually sad and ironic – we don’t have one family portrait of us,” she said, adding, “every time we’d go on vacation, he would always photograph other people instead of us. He always found other people to take pictures of. He’d go off with his camera and photograph someone he never met and he’d never see again.”
In spite of the lack of family pictures, however, Gina said she is filled with warm family memories.
“He was always there for us, no matter what,” she said, adding that she never realized the scope of her father’s accomplishments until recently. “He is the most generous man I’ve ever met. His heart is incredible and he never thinks of himself, only others, no matter what.”
Lifetouch took him around world
In 1987, Cilento sold his company that had employed more than 100 individuals to Lifetouch and became the company’s executive vice president of photographic development.
In this capacity, he oversaw the photography and development of Lifetouch’s church directories, publishing, portrait studios, national school studios and development.
His work with Lifetouch connected him to a group from the University of Notre Dame which led to a trip to Medjugorje, the site of alleged Marian apparitions, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was the first of nine such trips he’d make to the area.
“I experienced some beautiful things there, photographing the visionaries,” he said, adding he became a war photographer of sorts during the Croatian and Bosnian wars.
He produced an album of his work there and presented it to Pope John Paul II which led to his photographing the pope on four other occasions, including twice at the Vatican and in St. Louis and Denver.
Photographed two saints
Every time he was in the pontiff’s presence, Cilento said he was overwhelmed by the experience. He was particularly moved by one time when he was close enough to Pope John Paul II, who was leaning on his crosier deep in prayer, to hear the pope weeping.
He has also photographed Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis as he photographed the 2014 canonization of John Paul II and Pope John XXIII.
Cilento is often asked about the most famous person he’s met. While he has photographed more than 1,000 celebrities, he thinks back to the time he was kneeling at Mass in Tijuana, Mexico in 1991 and the person next to him was Mother Teresa.
“I had the unbelievable privilege of kneeling next to her at Mass … and I think of Tony Cilento from 206 W. Elm Street, East Rochester, New York, and now I am next to an individual that I know is going to be a saint,” he said describing his awe at the experience.
With the canonization of St. Mother Teresa last year and St. John Paul II in 2014, Cilento noted he has met two living saints.
“Very few photographers can say they photographed saints. They can say they photographed all the celebrities in the world, but I have had the privilege of having photographed two saints,” he noted.
His work in Medjugorje and at the Vatican deepened his faith, he said.
“I’ve always had faith, but through my religious experiences that I had photographically, something is burned inside of you. As you look through a camera you totally isolate the world, and everything focuses to a spotlight. When you are looking at whoever it may be, (you see) the spiritual element,” said Cilento.
Describing Medjugorje as “Disney World for God,” he said it was “beautiful living within that function of prayer, and … it became wonderful to go there and experience it and bring it back and share it with others. That’s what photographic industry is all about, the sharing element.”
Is driven by need to giving back
His faith is also what drives him to give back to others.
“I have come to the conclusion that God gave me a very special gift and with this special gift, we are asked to give something back,” he explained of his many volunteer efforts photographing and creating brochures and advertising with organizations like the March of Dimes, Tripoli Shrine, burn centers, Leukemia Society of America. His work with a papal commission to produce a documentary, “Valley of Tears,” has raised more than $2 million for the needy in war-torn Bosnia, he said.
Along the way, Cilento has garnered numerous awards including the prestigious United Nations International Photographic Council IPA award in 2006, but he’s quick to point out that “all those awards and $1 will buy you a cup of coffee at McDonalds.
“It’s not hard to get an award, the hard part is living up to it,” he said.
As he reflected on his many accomplishments, Cilento marveled at the path his life has traveled.
“Going back to that little camera my mother gave me, I never realized what that little object that I would hold in my hand, who it would get me to meet, where it would take me.”
While Cilento retired from Lifetouch about four years ago, he remained on as a consultant until about six months ago. Admitting he’s “not real good at retirement,” Cilento said he hopes to find ways to continue to use his talents for the benefit of others.
“He’s a deeply spiritual man,” said daughter, Gina. “He really loves God and wants to share his gifts that God gave him with people. He loves being able to capture moments and sharing them with the world.”