As his centennial approaches, Tony Vaccaro looks back at a singular life in photography that enabled him to survive both the Battle of Normandy and COVID-19, and work for Flair, Look, and Life during the golden age of picture magazines.
After a lifetime behind the camera, Tony Vaccaro is still going strong. After recovering from COVID-19 earlier this year, the Italian-American photographer, who turns 98 on December 20, has resumed his workout routine. On an unseasonably warm late November morning, he ran a 12:54 mile; not bad for the high school athlete who shaved 42 seconds off the record in 1943. “I plan at 100 to establish a new record for running a mile,” Vaccaro says from his home in Long Island City, Queens.
It’s more than a notion; Vaccaro is a survivor par excellence. Born Michelantonio Celestino Onofrio Vaccaro in Greensburg Pennsylvania, in 1922, Vaccaro was just four years old when both his parents died while the family was relocating to Italy. The horrors of his childhood linger to this day, as the photographer recounts the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father’s brother while growing up in Italy.
“My uncle and his wife never had children and they didn’t know how handle them,” Vaccaro says. “Because of this, I was punished every day. I was black and blue for 15 years of my life, until I got in the Army. They looked and asked, ‘What happened to you, son?’ I couldn’t tell the truth, that people were beating me for everything I did wrong.”
Though the bruises have healed, the memories remain tempered by a love his discovered as a teen. After World War II broke out in Europe, Vaccaro fled to the United States, and enrolled in Isaac E. Young High School in New Rochelle, New York. The young artist dreamed of being a sculptor but fate had other plans.
“Mr. Louis, a teacher, told me, ‘Tony, these sculptures are pretty good but you are born to be a photographer.’ I had never heard the word photography before,” Vaccaro says. “He told me, ‘You will make a great life with it,’ and by God he was right. I was then 14, 15. I’ve been a photographer for 85 years and I still feel very good.”
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The new exhibition, Tony Vaccaro at 98, looks back at the photographer’s extraordinary career, which began in earnest when he was drafted into World War II. Deployed to Europe as a private in the 83rd Infantry Division, which was nicknamed “Thunderbolt,” Vaccaro fought in Normandy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. As a scout, he was able to make photographs bearing witness to the horrors of war from the frontline. His images of death, destruction, and defeat stand as poignant reminders of the inhumanity of war, and the necessity for survival against the odds.
“I was wounded twice but I’m still here,” Vaccaro says. “I took pictures every day of GIs fighting, dying, being wounded, so I have a collection of pictures that I took then that I don’t think another photographer ever dared to live the kind of life I did.”
After being discharged in September 1945, Vaccaro remained in Germany, where he worked as a photojournalist for Weekend, the Sunday supplement to U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes for the next four years. He returned stateside in 1949, working for Flair, Look, and Life during the golden age of picture magazines.
Soon Vaccaro was traveling the globe, making stops everywhere from the source of the Nile River to the South Pole. He remembers an assignment for Venture magazine, where he traveled north along the Nile for over 40 days in 1963. The journey ended in Alexandria and a visit with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Standing along the waterfront, Nasser pointed to the Roman ruins that remained, and made a reference to Caesar, telling Vaccaro, "Look, your people were here 2,000 years ago!"
Finding Love Amid the Stars
Over the next 25 years, Vaccaro would amass one of the greatest archives of fashion and celebrity photography, creating iconic images of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock, W. Eugene Smith, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as Hollywood royalty including Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, and Ali McGraw.
“I always worked with people who were easy to be with,” Vaccaro says, recounting moments spent with everyone from fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy to filmmaker Federico Fellini. Vaccaro recounts his encounter with famous collector Peggy Guggenheim in Venice with aplomb. “If you go to her palazzo, you will see a statue of a man on a horse, and the sculptor gave the horse a penis as big from the tip of my fingers to my elbow. The day I went to photograph her, school children were coming to to visit her place, so she climbed on a ladder, and unscrewed the penis and hid it under her dress,” he says with a laugh.
But perhaps the most special encounter he had was on assignment to photograph Marimekko, a Finnish home design and fashion company, where he met Anja Kyllikki, a model who would become his wife in 1963.“I went to a fashion show and they were 20 beautiful girls in the theater,” Vaccaro recalls. “One of them, our eyes met, and met, and met. I told her, ‘Look I feel as if I could marry you.’ And she said, ‘You took the words out of my mouth because I want to marry you.’ And that’s how I married my wife.”
Celebrating a Life in Photography
A true fighter, Vaccaro is one of the few people to survive both the Battle of Normandy and COVID-19. He attributes his longevity to the winning combination of “blind luck, red wine, and determination.” For Vaccaro, art has been the antidote for the inhumanity he has witnessed throughout his life. His spirit is filled with light and joy, and a faith in the future that includes us all.
“Mankind is an amazing animal,” Vaccaro says. “We have created so much: television, photography, monuments, great roads. The earth is paradise as far as I am concerned. We live in paradise, no question. My desire is for mankind to destroy the nations and just create one nation in the universe, one world.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Tony Vaccaro at 98
On view through January 17, 2021
Monroe Gallery, 112 Don Gaspar, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA