For Tony Vaccaro, a 92-year-old Long Island City resident, World War II veteran and retired magazine photographer, little has been constant. His home, his job, his family and even his name have all changed throughout the years. Only one thing has stayed the same: a camera has been by his side no matter where life has taken him.
From battlefields to fashion runways, Vaccaro’s cameras have captured soldiers, models, politicians, and celebrities at war and at work. He’s developed photos in soldiers’ helmets during the war, in midtown-Manhattan studios when he worked in the magazine industry, and then, for years, in a spare bedroom in his apartment near Vernon Boulevard.
Now, for the first time since 1973, Vaccaro once again has his own professional space, a studio less than a mile from his apartment. It features a darkroom, a cappuccino machine, and a balcony overlooking the neighborhood.
Vaccaro agreed to open the studio after the wife of his oldest son, Frank, gave birth to twins, his first grandchildren. Vaccaro gave Frank permission to organize his archives and assets and market his work in order to leave a legacy for the grandchildren. The birth “changed everything,” said Frank Vaccaro. “We feel Tony can and should do better. We think he could be the best photographer ever.”
Vaccaro’s already hosted a prominent visitor – the mayor of Bonefro, the Italian town that hosts a museum dedicated to Vaccaro’s work – who came to see the studio in late September to celebrate its completion. While Vaccaro enjoys showing guests the framed awards hanging on the wall or the stacked press clippings sitting on the bookshelf, his favorite things to share are the thousands of negatives, slides, and transparencies he’s accumulated throughout his career.
Vaccaro could tell a story about every photo.
He described how he captured a soldier’s last moment alive during World War II. On January 10, 1944, in Ottre, Belgium, Vaccaro, a private first class, and his U.S. Army division were attacking a German strongpoint, he said. Bullets were whizzing back and forth as Germans ambushed two American squads. As soldiers ran for cover, Vaccaro followed, his rifle in one hand and his Argus C3 in the other. When mortar bombs exploded, Vaccaro paused mid-stride to snap a shot of the soldier behind him. The moment the shutter closed, Vaccaro was thrown off his feet. Shrapnel flew, and clouds of dust rose from the ground.
“The more cruelty you see, the more you want to help mankind,” said Vaccaro. “That’s the reason I took photos of people like this.”
His combat portfolio helped Vaccaro land his first professional photography job in 1950 for Flair magazine. Editor Fleur Cowles hired him on the spot after viewing his work, he said, even though he had never taken photos for a lifestyle magazine. He shot about 2,000 celebrities over the course of his career, later landing at publications including Look and Life before they eventually folded. He took portraits of famous figures such as John F. Kennedy, Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso, portraying his subjects not as posed icons, but as living people — with emotion, candor and nuance.
One of Vaccaro’s favorites, is his 1960 photo of artist Georgia O’Keeffe peering through a slice of Swiss cheese. He had spent several days unsuccessfully trying to gain O’Keeffe’s trust when he discovered a topic she loved – the Spanish matador Manolete. “When she found out that I had met Manolete,” said Vaccaro, “she couldn’t resist.” As they bonded over the bullfighter, O’Keeffe asked Vaccaro to take her for a car ride. While driving, Vaccaro noticed O’Keeffe looking through the cheese slice, studying the perspective for a painting. He seized the moment and got the shot.
Vaccaro also likes to describe the day in October 1962 when he first saw and photographed his wife Anja in Finland, where he was shooting a fashion show. Elegant, down-to-earth, with brown, wispy hair, Anja was modeling for the design company Marimekko. “When I first saw this woman,” Vaccaro recalled, “I said, ‘She’s mine.’ I basically proposed to her right then and there.”
Vaccaro’s son Frank describes his parents’ relationship as stormy, and they ultimately divorced. But Vaccaro is sentimental when talks about Anja, who died in 2013 from lung cancer. “I never loved another person,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro has gray hair, wise eyes and plastic-rimmed glasses. He’s a deeply thoughtful man whose views about life were shaped by his experiences in battle. “When we kill Italians, we are not killing I-T-A-L-I-A-N-S,” Vaccaro said, “We are killing blood.”
Those who know Vaccaro well, such as his best friend, Meir Newman, have memorized Vaccaro’s ideas: “ ‘Be kind to mankind.’ Those are Tony’s words,” Newman said.
Vaccaro’s photos are in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, the Rochester Institute of Technology, and other institutions. They’re also on permanent display at his favorite Italian restaurant, Manducatis Rustica, in Long Island City. Vaccaro visits the restaurant several times a day, often singing the Italian classic “Ciao Ciao Bambina” to owner Gianna Cerbonne-Teoli. “That’s what he calls me, his baby,” Cerbonne-Teoli said. “When my parents go to Italy, Tony says, ‘Don’t worry. You have me.’ ”
Vaccaro was born in December 1922 in Greensburg, Pennsylvania as Michelantonio Celestino Onofrio Vaccaro. Most people call him Tony now, but he’s also been known as Michael. Vaccaro moved to his father’s hometown of Bonefro with his mother and two sisters in 1926. In 1929, while in Bonefro, he said he watched his mother die giving birth to twins. His father passed away several years later, and Vaccaro was sent to stay with an uncle in Italy until he returned to America in 1939.
At the Isaac E. Young High School in New Rochelle, New York, Vaccaro joined the photography club, and it changed his life. He didn’t have a country. He didn’t have a family. But he had a camera. “That’s all he needed to give value to his existence,” said Frank Vaccaro. “It saved him in the deepest way possible.”
Vaccaro describes his photography as art in an instant. He still carries a camera — or his iPhone — with him wherever he goes in Long Island City. Whether he’s shuffling to his apartment, to his studio or to Manducatis Rustica, Vaccaro is alert and ready, waiting to capture the moment and to share a story. “To be able to do something like that,” Vaccaro said, “is the finest thing you could possibly do.”