Tony Vaccaro’s life and legacy celebrated in landmark show

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Tony Vaccaro with Test Strip, NYC, 1960. © Tony Vaccaro. Courtesy Monroe Gallery.

From the battlefields of Europe to the rooftops of Manhattan, the late photographer’s career is explored anew to mark his centenary

As a young child in the mid-1920s, Tony Vaccaro was forced to flee the country in which he was born. Under threat from the Mafia, he and his family left America for Italy. Here, aged just eight, both of his parents passed away, leaving the now orphaned Vaccaro with an “uncaring” aunt and a “brutal” uncle.

Despite this, Vaccaro remained in Italy until 1939 when, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he was ordered to return to the United States – a move which would eventually prove fortuitous. Vaccaro joined his high school camera club and, by the time he was drafted into the war aged 21, had developed a life-long passion for photography – one which would lead to a long and varied career.

Vaccaro sitting on Wing, 1945. © Tony Vaccaro. Courtesy Monroe Gallery.

Between Christmas and New Year, just days after he celebrated his hundredth birthday, Vaccaro passed away. The photographer lived just long enough to visit one last exhibition of his work: Tony Vaccaro: The Centennial Exhibition, which remains on display at Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe. The show includes more than two dozen images dating from 1944-1979, juxtaposing his powerful early war images with the lyrical mid-century fashion, film and pop culture photographs which came later.

The earliest of Vaccaro’s images date from his time as a combat infantryman and as a private in the Intelligence Platoon. Accompanied by his 35mm Argus C3, the young photographer fought on the frontlines at Omaha Beach and behind enemy lines on intelligence gathering missions. Some of the resulting images are brutal – the body of a young soldier, half buried in snow – but when we spoke in December, Vaccaro was matter of fact about his motivations for making the photographs: “Because nobody was taking them,” he replied.

White death. © Tony Vaccaro.
Fun in Finland, 1965. © Tony Vaccaro. Courtesy Monroe Gallery.

On his return from the war, Vaccaro turned his lens on the worlds of fashion and celebrity. Replacing the searing images of horror embedded in his memory, he focused on the splendour of life, capturing the beauty of fashion, art and fame for publications including Life, Look and Harper’s Bazaar. The photographer’s reflections on this period are once again self-effacing. “In the end they all accepted my pictures because they wanted to accept them,” he said.

During this period of his career, Vaccaro photographed some of the biggest names of the day – Enzo Ferrari, Sophia Loren, Pablo Picasso – but the image that stays with him dates from many years prior. Kiss of Liberation shows Sergeant Gene Costanzo, kneeling to kiss a young girl amid celebrations in the French town of St. Briac France on 14 August 1944 – just 11 days before German forces surrendered in Paris.

This emotive image is among the first examples of Vaccaro’s work to display what would become a signature element of both his documentary and commercial images: the will to live against all odds and to advance the power of beauty. Determined until the end, in the weeks before his death, the photographer said: “To me, the greatest thing that you can do is challenge the world. And most of these challenges I win.”

Gwen Verdon, New York, 1953 (for LOOK). ©Tony Vaccaro. Courtesy Monroe Gallery.
The Fashion Train, New York, 1960. © Tony Vaccaro. Courtesy Monroe Gallery.
Kiss of Liberation. Sergeant Gene Costanzo kneels to kiss a little girl during spontaneous celebrations in the main square of the town of St. Briac, France, August 15. © Tony Vaccaro.

Tony Vaccaro: The Centennial Exhibition is on show at Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe, until 5 February 2023.