Cedarburg — A soft-spoken man with a sharp eye, photographer Tony Cilento reflects on his long career of photographing popes and actors, as well as everyday people who he said are "famous to their families and friends."

Tony Cilento, who lives in Cedarburg, said people get photos taken for one reason — memories.  He called it a "beautiful way to give back."  Retiring a few years ago, Cilento said it's "not working very well" for him.  He said he can't let go of something he's appreciated and loved and used to service many people.

"I'm not quitting," he said. "I still enjoy what I do."

Setting the scene

Cilento was born in East Rochester, New York.  Growing up he struggled with dyslexia and photography allowed him to express himself with a medium other than words.

"Photography became my voice," he said.

Cilento received his bachelor of science degree from Marquette University.  He also attended New York University, Germain School of the Spectrum (the Germain School of Photography), the School of Modern Photography, MU, Layton School of the Arts, and the Winona School of Photography.

Cilento opened his first of two studios in Milwaukee on Downer Avenue in 1962. As his business and reputation grew, Cilento began a public speaking career, which took him around the world.  His goal was to share his love of photography with up-and-coming photographers.

"It became a wonderful element in my life of sharing the photography profession with a lot of young people," Cilento said.

In 1987, he sold his company to Lifetouch, Inc., where he became vice president of photographic development. Cilento said he was "the voice of the 30,000 Lifetouch photographers" during his tenure.

Meeting many

As a professional photographer, Cilento has taken photos of celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Mac, President Gerald Ford, President Ronald Reagan, Billy Graham and family, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis I, among others.

Cilento was given an all-access pass to the Vatican for the 2014 Canonization of John Paul II and Pope John XXIII and produced a book called The Rite of Canonization.  He also created an African safari photo book, was the official Summerfest photographer, photographed the Miss America Pageant, photographed the Bosnian War, was a judge for the Miss Universe Pageant, was a National Football League/Green Bay Packers photographer, and filmed the Vince Lombardi Show among other projects.

"People thought I was famous because I was working for Vince Lombardi," Cilento said. "I really loved what I was doing."

One of Cilento's best memories was attending church with Mother Teresa and getting photos.  He also said he felt honored when he had the opportunity to speak at the United Nations.

Despite all of the famous projects Cilento participated in, he said he still enjoyed photographing people who weren't so famous, especially children, just as much.

A snapshot of his soul

Despite a lifetime of experience and training, Cilento said he still doesn't know how to take a photo, that he's always learning more.

"If I learned to take a photo I'd stop; I still haven't learned," Cilento said.

When it comes to taking photos, Cilento said a true photographer doesn't shoot something; they create something. He said photography isn't something you can just go out and buy, it has to be made. He said as a photographer you "service people."

"What comes from the heart reaches the heart," he said.

Within his heart is a deep faith in God.  Cilento said he came from humble beginnings but was "rich in faith and spirit" growing up.

Considering his photography ability a gift, he said what God gives as a gift he'll also ask you to give back to others. Throughout his career, Cilento has received many awards. He said obtaining an award is simple, the challenge is living up to it.

"Success isn't happiness, happiness is success," he said.

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