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Remembering Tony Vaccaro Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

31 December 2022

Tony Vaccaro, who covered World War II from the battlefield before launching a career as a fashion, travel and celebrity photographer for the magazines, died at home in the Long Island City section of Queens on Wednesday. He was 100.

Born in Greensburg, Pa., to Italian immigrants, the family returned to Bonefro, Italy, with his mother to avoid a threat to his father by the local crime lords when he was three. But he soon found himself an orphan when his mother died and, shortly after, his father before he could return to Italy.

With his two sisters, he lived in Benofro with their grandmother until Mussolini's fascists came to power. Then Vaccaro went to the American Conul General in Rome to get a U.S. passport to return to America where he lived with an aunt.

'It was necessary for me to be evil for 272 days. But not forever.'

He became interested in photography as a high school student in New Rochelle, N.Y., taking pictures for the yearbook. He thought the photos would gain him a post as a combat photographer with the Signal Corps after he was inducted into the Army two months after graduation.

But he had no combat experience or much experience as a photographer either. So while his work was praised, he didn't get to bring along his camera until he was 21 and old enough to join the infantry.

He carried his 35mm Argus C3 through 272 days of combat with the 83rd Infantry Division, fighting through Normandy to Germany at the end of the war. To get his camera safely across the Channel during the invasion of Normandy, he wrapped it in 10 layers of cellphone.

The Signal Corps were the only ones officially permitted to take photos but Vaccaro captured more intimate images than the Corps could with their heavier gear, eventually receiving permission to shoot as long as he remembered he was a soldier first.

As a soldier he gained the trust of his fellow infantrymen. Because he was one of them, they didn't shy away from his camera. Nor did his local subjects as they moved through Europe liberating city after city.

Finding film and processing chemicals was a challenge he met by raiding the ruins of camera shops in the towns his unit encountered. "I found cameras, I found films, developers and everything else that you can imagine," Vaccaro recalled. "So I took a sack of everything."

He would develop film in his company's helmets and hang negatives on trees to dry before storing them in his backpack. But he refined the process so that he used only his own helmet for the hypo, as he remembers in this clip:

He managed to accumulate over 8,000 images of the campaign.

When the war was over, he ended his career as a conflict photographer as well, worn out from the toll it had taken on him. "It was necessary for me to be evil for 272 days. But not forever," he once explained. Instead, he turned his lens on what the magazines were buying.

And the magazines of the second half of the 20th century, empowered by offset lithography that made halftone photography feasible in both black and white and eventually color, were buying a lot. He shot for Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country and Flair.

Among his subjects were the Eisenhower family, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, Sophia Loren, Greta Garbo, Maria Callas and Federico Fellini.

O'Keefe was a project. Look had assigned him to photograph her at her home in New Mexico. But as the widow of the celebrated Alfred Stieglitz, she refused to pose for the unknown photographer.

That was no problem for the former conflict photographer.

He cooked for her, making a picnic lunch. When the wind spoiled the picnic plan, he gave her some Swiss cheese as she sat in the back seat of his car. When she jokingly looked through a big hole in the cheese, he grabbed his camera and got the shot. He was used to working fast.

"That moment was not even a second, but I stopped it," he remembered. "She was amazed by it. She said, 'I never saw anyone working like you.'"

He retired in 1980 and is survived by his sons Frank and David from his marriage to the Finnish model Anja Lehto, who died in 2013, and two grandsons.

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