Tony Vaccaro's life of war and fame

The photographer who witnessed World War II up close

Tony Vaccaro (Photo: Reddit)

Tony Vaccaro
(Photo: Reddit)

On December 28, 2022, Tony Vaccaro, one of World War II’s greatest photographers had passed away. With this article we would like to pay tribute to him and his amazing career that spanned over eight decades, took place on three continents, tried countless genres, and used or developed many photographical techniques. Several of our tours visit the same sites where he took his historic photos during the war: Omaha Beach in France, the city of Bastogne in Belgium and the Eagle’s Nest in Germany, just to name a few.
 
Tony Vaccaro was born Michelantonio Celestino Onofrio Vaccaro on December 20, 1922, in Greensburg, Pennsylvania to Italian parents. His family on his father’s side was from Bonefro, a small town in Southern Italy, just 16 miles (25 km) northeast from Campobasso. The latter became the site of heavy battles during the Italian Campaign of WW2. The clashes between German and Canadian forces resulted in the destruction of many buildings and claimed the lives of dozens of civilians. When Vaccaro was four years old, his parents decided to move back to Italy. A few years later, both of his parents passed away in the same year so little Tony was raised by his grandmother on his uncle’s farm.

St. Anthony procession going through Bonefro, Italy, 1947-48 (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Bridgeman Images)
St. Anthony procession going through Bonefro, Italy, 1947-48
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Bridgeman Images)

In the early 1920s, fascism started to gain more and more followers in Italy and Vaccaro decided to move back to his birthplace, the United States in 1939. He enrolled in high school in New Rochelle, New York, and took up an interest in photography. He purchased an Argus C3 35-millimeter camera, which was a hefty investment for a high school student: the price tag read $35 at the time, equivalent to $700 in 2023. The Argus C3 became one of the most popular cameras to ever be produced in the U.S., with over 2 million pieces sold from 1939 to 1966. It was loved by photographers because of its ability to withstand harsh weather conditions, and also because of its high-quality, sharp images. He had no idea of it back then, but that camera would go on to see almost 300 days of combat in World War II.

An Argus C3 35-millimeter camera (Photo: Camerafiend/Wikipedia)
An Argus C3 35-millimeter camera
(Photo: Camerafiend/Wikipedia)

Right after his graduation in 1943, he was drafted into the Army, where he tried to join the Signal Corps to further develop his photography skills. His request was denied because of his age, as he was only 21 at the time. “You’re too young; you have to become a soldier first,” a particular captain had said. As Vaccaro recalled to Molly Gottschalk, a fellow photographer in an interview for the magazine Artsy: “I said, sir, I am old enough to do this with a gun,” - pulling an invisible trigger, - “and not old enough to do this?” his gesture now depressing a camera shutter. The captain answered: “That’s funny! But you’re still too young for the Signal Corps.”

Tony Vaccaro in 1945 with his 35-millimeter cameras. (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
Tony Vaccaro in 1945 with his 35-millimeter cameras
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

He was old enough for the infantry though, so he joined the 83rd Infantry Division, also known as the Thunderbolt or Ohio Division. Some units of this division saw combat in Italy during World War I. In World War II, however, it “only” fought in the campaigns of Western Europe, and so Tony did not have to go to war on his ancestors’ land.
 
The 83rd first arrived in England on April 16, 1944, and set camp in Keele Hall, Staffordshire. They went through two weeks of training and landed on Omaha Beach on June 18. Just before leaving for France, while all the other soldiers were busy checking their gear, Tony secretly wrapped his Argus C3 camera in layers of plastic to keep it from the water and to hide it from his commanding officer. “I kept my camera inside my coat, and what I did, I made the hole a bit bigger and put it around the lens. I kept one hand on the camera and with the other, I saluted the officer” he later recalled. One of his first pictures of the war was shot from the inside of Widerstandsnest 72, a German strongpoint in the Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach and a sight we visit on our tours going through Normandy, too.

  Inside of WN72 on Omaha Beach, June 18, 1944. (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
 
The view from WN72 on Omaha Beach, June 18, 1944
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

When Vaccaro walked ashore, he quickly found out that the standard issue combat camera was the 1944 Graflex speed graphic, a large format camera that weighs about 20 pounds (9 kg) without accessories. “I knew I had them” he said in the HBO documentary Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro.  “I can do better than all the Signal Corps photographers put together. Because I had a 35 millimeter.” And he was absolutely right.
 
With a consumer camera like the Argus C3, he had the mobility that official photographers could only dream of. He could have the camera around his neck all day without breaking a sweat as it only weighed 26.8 oz. (760 g). The Signal Corps’ GIs, on the other hand, had to carry over twenty pounds of extra equipment if they wanted to shoot more than 36 frames a day. The famous photographer Robert Capa once famously said: “If your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough.” With his 35-millimeter camera so easy to hide, Tony could get as close to the action as possible.

 Soldier shooting with the standard issue combat camera, a 1944 Graflex speed graphic. (Image: screenshot from “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro”)
 Soldier shooting with the standard issue combat camera, a 1944 Graflex speed graphic (Image: screenshot from “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro”)

His obsession with photography was no secret from his fellow soldiers. They accepted him taking photos early in Operation Overlord, and that fact became one of the major contributors to his success. While the Signal Corps was distant from the 83rd Infantry – literally and figuratively –, Vaccaro was one of them. They trusted him and after a while didn’t even notice him taking the pictures, which resulted in some of the most candid images ever taken in WW2.

“The Kiss of Liberation,” one of his best-known images, showing a celebratory moment after the liberation of St. Briac by Allied forces in August 1944.  (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
“The Kiss of Liberation,” one of his best-known images, showing a celebratory moment after the liberation of St. Briac by Allied forces in August 1944
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography) 

Later, when a major overheard Vaccaro talking about his ambition for taking pictures, he got very excited about it. “Major MacDonald said ‘Son, you stay close to me, and you take any picture you want. At the end of the war, we will make a book.’” This book, Entering Germany: 1944-1949, was eventually published in 2001, twelve years after the major’s death, and more than fifty years after the war. After Major MacDonald gave his blessings to him taking photos, Vaccaro knew he was in the perfect place, having the best of both worlds: “I didn’t become an official photographer, I was democratic. I could do anything.”
 
Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator emeritus at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, recalls in Underfire, the documentary about Mr. Vaccaro: “He was one of them, they trusted him. Not only with the pictures that he took, but as the man on one side or another of them as the fighting broke out.” Since he was an infantryman, he was close to the action, and he was always able to capture intimate moments.

Defusing a mine on Omaha Beach (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
Defusing a mine on Omaha Beach
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

Marching deeper and deeper into France, he faced a new issue: there was no supply of the chemicals he used for developing his films. Development is a very intricate process that requires precise measurements, perfect timing, and almost complete darkness. Since none of these conditions were available, he had to improvise. One day, they arrived at a flattened French village, where a building with an abandoned camera shop miraculously survived. He recalls in an interview: “I would go in the ruins of towns, and I would look where there was a camera shop, and in the ruins I would find film, chemicals, and I would take them.” Then, the chemicals had to be divided into four parts for the four steps of photo-development. The process had to be done at night, to avoid any damage to the roll. He hung the photos on trees to dry. Since he had no special trays for the chemicals, he asked the other soldiers to lend him their helmets. “One day a GI that had given me a helmet and I had used for the Hypo [a strong-smelling photo chemical], when I gave it back to him it stank of Hypo. He told me, don’t you ever ask me again. So, I learned to put the Hypo in my own helmet.”

Unknown American soldier with a German MG42 machine gun during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 or January 1945 (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
Unknown American soldier with a German MG42 machine gun during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 or January 1945
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

The 83rd Infantry Division joined the Battle of the Bulge on December 27, 1944. He would later recall these days as the hardest he ever had to go through. The snow and the lack of rations made it difficult to even survive, not to mention take and develop photos. In a video-interview for the Caen Memorial Museum he said “Sometimes I was scared because I felt that while I was taking photographs perhaps the Nazis would kill me, would shoot me, so what I did was to work very quickly. Many times, I didn’t even look through the viewfinder, I just shot.” On January 12, 1945, still stuck in the Ardennes, he took one of his most famous shots ever, “White Death: Photo Requiem for a Dead Soldier, Private Henry I. Tannenbaum” It shows the remains of a soldier whose body was partly covered by snowfall when Private Vaccaro came upon him the morning after he died.

“White Death: Photo Requiem for a Dead Soldier, Private Henry I. Tannenbaum”  (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
“White Death: Photo Requiem for a Dead Soldier, Private Henry I. Tannenbaum” (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

“I wanted this photo to be that of an unknown soldier,” he said in the HBO documentary. “I saw who it was — my friend Henry Tannenbaum. We were both from New York. One day he showed me his family and his baby.”

After its trials in the Bulge, the battle-hardened 83rd moved back from the front for some rest and recreation. It entered battle again on March 1, 1945 and occupied the German city Neuss during Operation Grenade. This operation marked the beginning of the Allied invasion of Germany – the U.S. Ninth Army crossed the river Roer to link up with the Canadian First Army which was breaking into Germany from the Netherlands.

American GI Ivan Parrott is seen running through smoke in no man’s land near Neuss, Germany during the Battle for the Rhine, 1st March 1945 (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
American GI Ivan Parrott is seen running through smoke in no man’s land near Neuss, Germany during the Battle for the Rhine, March 1, 1945
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

The further they went into Germany, the more horror they’ve encountered. The 83rd were the first to Langenstein-Zwieberge, a subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The 1100 inmates were on the verge of dying, sick and malnourished, exhausted from the 16-hour workdays. The death toll was about 25-50 per day even after they were fed and hospitalized, a result of physical and mental deterioration. He captured several of his iconic photos at Adolf Hitler’s Berghof, the dictator’s residence in Berchtesgaden bombed by the Allies shortly before the end of the war.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
The photo “Hitler's window" taken at Hitler’s Berghof
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

When the war eventually was over, I left all the war negatives with my sisters” Vaccaro said in Underfire. “I had a big box filled with them. I didn’t want anything to do with killing and death. I had enough.” His “big box” is estimated to have contained 8,000 photographs, taken over 272 days of service. After being discharged, he stayed in Germany until 1949, working for newspapers like AVA and Stars and Stripes. His main intention was to capture how Europe rebuilt itself after the ravages of the war.

“Entering Germany” Frankfurt, Germany, 1947 (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)
“Entering Germany” Frankfurt, Germany, 1947
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Monroe Gallery of Photography)

Vaccaro returned to New York City in 1949. Looking for a job, he went to Fleur Cowles, the legendary editor of Look magazine. When he showed his portfolio, he was refused at first, since all he had in there were war photographs. “She said: ”I don’t need a combat photographer, I need fashion. Can you do fashion?’ I said I dated the most beautiful girl in high school, she inspired me to take up photography, yes, I can take fashion pictures. So, she hired me.” Interestingly, there was another man competing for the same job; his name was Stanley Kubrick, the later director and producer.
 
Vaccaro later fully transitioned to fashion photography and took the pictures of countless models and celebrities. In 1965, he was asked to take pictures for Marimekko, a Finnish fashion company. Marimekko was very influential in the 60s, combining unusual textiles with bright colors and simple patterns. It was during one of these photoshoots that he first met his future wife, Finnish model Anja Kyllikki Lehto.

Photoshoot for Marimekko in 1965. Vaccaro’s future wife on the left. (Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Taidehalli)
Photoshoot for Marimekko in 1965 with Vaccaro’s future wife on the left
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro, Taidehalli)

During the war, Tony Vaccaro was famous for always going where the action was. He was chasing the subject tirelessly. After the war, however, this balance had shifted, and the subjects were coming to him. John F. Kennedy, Sophia Lauren, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Georgia O’Keeffe are just a few of the hundreds of stars and public figures he captured. If anyone wanted a stylish yet candid shot, Vaccaro was the one to go to.

A contact sheet of photos Vaccaro took of Sophia Loren, 1959 (Photo: Jesse Winter for the Wall Street Journal)
A contact sheet of photos Vaccaro took of Sophia Loren, 1959
(Photo: Jesse Winter for the Wall Street Journal)

 

Vaccaro received many awards and other forms of appreciation later in his life. In 1994, during the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he was awarded the highest French order of merit, the Legion of Honor. Most of his war photos were published in 2001 in the book Entering Germany: 1944-1949. In 2016, an amazing documentary was made about his war years titled Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro. He had more than 250 exhibitions over his almost 80-year long career, in such distinguished venues as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or a museum that bears his name in his father’s hometown of Bonefro in Italy.
 
He revisited Normandy on many occasions, and planned to do so in 2024, at the age of 102. Sadly, he passed away on December 28, 2022 in his New York apartment at the age of 100 just eight days after his birthday celebration. He had a long life, which he explained with “blind luck, chocolate, red wine.” He will always be remembered through his photos and for his positive thinking "I have always tried to photograph those who had made a contribution to the good of humanity; a way to get out of the war, from its rubble, from the wounds I carry within me. (…) I want to keep thinking that the future will be better."

Undated portrait of Tony Vaccaro (Photo: Tony Vaccaro Archive)
Undated portrait of Tony Vaccaro
(Photo: Tony Vaccaro Archive)
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