For five years in the heady 1980s, balikbayan John Silao was the photographer of choice, a favorite of Manila’s magazine covers and the darling of society women, show biz nymphets, and the fashion world. And then he disappeared at the height of his fame. On the occasion of Silao’s first show in 34 years, Rogue speaks to his muses and colleagues to capture the magic of the man and his pictures—and their unique brand of glamour that came at a time when the Philippines needed it most
“I love me, I love myself… but when I saw Cristina’s Reflection by John it was love at first sight—again,” said the legendary Cristina Valdes, once dubbed Manila’s “ultimate society girl.” “John’s forte is on improving on nature. He can make a plain girl beautiful and an ugly woman glamorous,” wrote Grace Glory Go in Star! magazine. “He brought me into the realms of my fantasies and imaginations, and gave me the freedom to be myself,” Mildred Loewinsohn, a journalist for the 80s weekly People Magazine, was quoted as saying. “He’s brilliant. A blinding light. That’s what Silao means.”
There is a little known slice of history in Philippine society, a slice the elderly lifestyle scribes have yet to wax nostalgic about. It’s that time when a certain Fil-Am photographer flew in from California and made himself the darling of the pedigreed set, not to mention the movie and fashion industry. He was lean and lightly muscled, with a headful of black hair and that natty but luxurious mustache that seemed to be a prerequisite for all manly men in the 1980s. He looked like the Frank Zappa of the disco freaks, with his satin shirts opened down to the navel. He spoke with an American twang and knew just what to say and do to make a girl feel beautiful.
His name was John Silao. Call him the Jun de Leon or the Mark Nicdao of his time. A short period of time, if you think about it, for his 15 minutes ran only from 1980 to 1985, the period when he seduced the women of Manila with his eye and his camera, shooting them for their personal portraits, or their debuts on the covers of the city’s bevy of lifestyle rags.
Silao on the dance floor.
We now know, of course, that you could get killed or incarcerated for publishing anti-government sentiments in those days, but apparently it’s possible to meet the same fate taking photos of beautiful women if you don’t play it right—especially if one of the women in question was involved with high-ranking politicians. “I was hired by an agency that was doing some calendar work for Japan,” Silao tells me. “I had this one model who was German-Filipina. Really beautiful, but I knew that she was also the girlfriend of this very powerful politician. After the photo shoot, when we had the pictures developed and everything else, three days after, his security comes over and said they wanted all the slides and negatives that I took of her. If I said no, I could be dead. That’s all I can say about that. They got all my files in Excelsior.”
As is perhaps a testament to the man’s image as a much sought-after lensman, Silao moved around three photo studios: one at the Marbella II in Malate, another at the Legaspi Towers in Makati, and yes, a third studio at the Excelsior building in the business district. A sitting with him could fetch an easy five grand. If it was a movie star being shot and the agency was paying for it, it could ring up to P10,000. Members of the elite would fork over around P20,000—people like millionaire playboy Rene Knecht, Tingting Cojuangco, Cocoy Laurel, Chona Kasten—for a chance to have their portraits taken.
The first half of the 80s was a period of contradictions, excess, and surely a bit of danger. Martial Law was in its last breaths and the economy was sliding, slipping past its Southeast Asian neighbors. Discontent rippled in the peripheries of society, but in the arts and culture front, it was days of wine and roses. Philippine cinema was enjoying its Second Golden Age. Imelda invited the world for the Manila International Film Festival. Future classics were being made: City After Dark, Bona, Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, and Kisapmata among them. Even the sex flicks possessed the gravitas and quality of art films: Peque Gallaga’s Virgin Forest and Scorpio Nights, Elwood Perez’s Silip, and Celso Kid’s Virgin People.
It was also the Golden Age of Philippine fashion, a time when Christian Espiritu, Pitoy Moreno, Auggie Cordero, and Joe Salazar each received as many as 20 clients a day, a lot of whom belonged to Imelda Marcos’ Blue Ladies. Couturiers shared the limelight with artistas, their travels well accounted for in the weekly society pages. Manila then had a feel of an international playing field, not only because of the MIFF but also because, in the fashion front, it was the period when European houses such as Lanvin, Valentino, Dior, and Balmain came and presented their couture collections at invite-only luncheons.
Thus, it was a perfect setting for the balikbayan Silao, his American twang, and his pictures that the known publisher Max Soliven once complimented as looking “imported”—a buzzword in those days of heightened colonial mentality. For five years, in the thick of Manila’s lens-borne love affair with its glitziest and hottest—models (France Dionisio, Ping Federis, Bessie Badilla), heiresses (Josine Elizalde, Margarita Forés, Katrina Ponce-Enrile), and sex nymphets (Maria Isabel Lopez, Tetchie Agbayani, Vivian Velez)—the man was on a roll. “I had my 15 minutes of fame—and a little bit of heaven.”
“I’ll always have a hippie mind,” Silao likes to say. If there’s anything about his background that might make one see a logical arc to his becoming a glamour photographer, it’s that he found his bearings during the hippie years.
Tetchie Agbayani, who made waves internationally after posing for the German edition of Playboy in 1982, was the premiere Silao muse.
In Silao’s pictures, it is always the woman who reigns supreme. “When I see a girl, I don’t care if she’s fat, thin, whatever. I find the good thing about her in pictures. My approach is very personal. We don’t use fancy gowns, where the girl is only secondary to the whole thing,” he says.
Maria Isabel Lopez attributes her now-famous Cannes red carpet pose to Silao. “That is actually a John Silao pose I would do for many covers of magazines,” says the actress, who became the toast of the Cannes red carpet recently in her emerald gown (she was there for the Brillante Mendoza movie Ma’ Rosa). “Put your hips in front, and your shoulders facing the camera in a square position, that is the most flattering shot for a woman,” Lopez says. And then, “’Pull up Isabel!’ Okay, so now I want you to move your shoulders a little bit to the right,’” she continues, echoing Silao’s instructions.
Much of his 15-minutes in the limelight can be credited to publisher Max Soliven and his business partner, the former hotelier Dr. Ricardo Soler, who hired Silao to do all the covers of the now defunct Manila magazine. With the forerunners of Philippine photojournalism—Ed Santiago, Joe Gabor, Dick Baldovino, Mario Co, Romy Vitug, Silverio Enriquez—having already established their mark in the 60s and 70s, and studios like Bob’s and Razon’s slowly losing their grasp on the social scene, Silao was part of the new wave of photographers that included Wig Tysmans, George Tapan, Neal Oshima, and Bien Bautista.
“We were the wave that shook up places like Bob’s and Razon’s,” says Bautista. “At pag may alon naman, sabay-sabay ’yan. Walang kumokontra.”
There was a glaring gap then, Bautista says, between subservient party photographers who merely clicked the shutter, and those who took their craft seriously—and therefore commanded respect from clients and peers alike. “When we came along, I think their treatment of photographers changed. Hindi na ‘sutsut’,” he says, referring to the sound made by people trying to catch the attention of the photographer when they wanted their photo taken. “It became, ‘Good evening, have you eaten?’”
Bautista first met Silao during the latter’s 1982 photo exhibit in the Hotel Intercontinental. “There were only a handful of us shooting fashion and glamour. He had just come from the States, and his photos had this LA feel,” Bautista continues. Photos by local photographers tended to be more reserved then, he explains. But Silao’s took on the quality of his last name: “Silaw.” Bright. Maybe even so bright it hurt the eyes. “Rough sa edge ‘yung treatment niya. It was something new.”
Snapshots of Silao in the studio and on location. This collage—which also features some of the covers he made for different weeklies—is lifted from the souvenir program of his 1982 show at the Hotel Intercontinental, Reflections: Past, Present and Future.
Silao calls this trademark “the halo,” an effect that shows light “falling around the face and body.” It wasn’t a matter of mere backlighting. “I had to control the model during a shoot, [because] if she moves a little bit, you can see the light [behind her]. Sometimes I had to use two lights. A lot of people liked that because it made a fabulous picture,” he says.
More than the technicals and creativity, it was the connection he created with his subjects that made a memorable picture. “He is very expressive when you’re shooting. He gives you instant feedback,” says Tetchie Agbayani, who Silao considers his main muse. “He’s exciting to work with, because he really gets into it. As a model, if you see that the photographer is happy with what you’re giving, you tend to do more, give more.”
Katrina Ponce-Enrile echoes Agbayani: “He immediately placed me at ease and we went to work immediately. He told me what to do—that’s what I loved about him. He really knew his lighting! At that time, he played with only lights and mirrors. Can you imagine that?! But I suppose it was really the rapport he had with me that made me comfortable, that’s probably how he was able to capture me! I went to Silao a few times and our sessions were never rushed.”
“John Silao was the most high-profile glamor photographer during the 80s,” says Lopez, who is prone to using hyperbole, but endearingly so. “And the lighting of John Silao is so magical. He can pick up any girl in the street, whether you’re a fish vendor, a student, or a Mabini girl and you can see how he can transform women from every walk of life and enhance their beauty. Ginagawa ka niyang sosyal kahit di ka talaga sosyal. Even if your origins are so humble, John has what it takes to put you on a pedestal!”
Designer Pepito Albert during his post-college days and just before flying to L.A. to pursue a career in fashion. The exhibition curator Michael Salientes told him, “Look at your waistline, it’s 26!” “Excuse me,” Albert shot back, “25 and a half.”
Excerpted from “King of the Glamour Shot” by Jerome Gomez. For more photographs and the full story, check out Rogue Magazine’s June 2016 issue. The show “The Babes of John Silao” is ongoing up to the 25th of June at Archivo Gallery, 2nd Level Warehouse 1, 2135 Chino Roves Avenue, Makati City. Contact 09176342086 for details.