Tony Vaccaro: An incredible life in photography

Photos by Rosa Kim


“I want a great person. Somebody who gives something to humanity.” That’s how Tony Vaccaro chose his subjects for his photography in a career spanning over 70 years. He has used this criteria to capture the essence of some of the 20th century’s most iconic figures. They include Pablo Picasso (“I wanted to see if what his wife had written about him was true. It wasn’t”), Salvador Dali (“He kept me waiting for two hours, and I scolded him for it”), Jackson Pollock (“I teased him that he would be known as a paint dripper so he painted me a face”) and Frank Lloyd Wright (“He was simply one of the greatest men I knew.”)

Visitors to Manducatis Rustica in Long Island City will be familiar with Vaccaro’s work. A large number of his celebrity photographs adorn the walls. Georgia O’Keefe, Lauren Bacall, Marcel Marceau, Max Ernst and a commanding portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright. These, however, are a mere tantalizing glimpse of over 1,000 portraits taken by Vaccaro in his career which began in the U.S. Army during World War II. His first major assignment was to photograph the impact of the Americans in Germany. These magnificent photographs formed the basis of a Taschen published book Entering Germany.

After returning to the U.S. and dropping out of college – “I felt like I knew everything,” he said – Vaccaro travelled around the country in a 1943 Chevrolet. One day he saw a copy of Business Week magazine with Fleur Cowles on the cover. He approached her for work and she hired him straight away. He started with Flair, and was quickly booked for photographic assignments by Life, Look and the other great publications of that period.

During this time Vaccaro moved from Long Island to Greenwich Village and regularly hung out at the Cedar Tavern with Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning and others.

At the same time, and for the next three decades, he began to photograph an extraordinary array of celebrities, and of course, some of the most beautiful women too; Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Liz Taylor, Maria Callas, Ali McGraw and the Europeans, Sophia Loren (“one of the greatest women I ever met”), Gina Lollabrigida (“she cooked for me”) Anna Magnani, and Anita Ekberg, the beautiful star of “La Dolce Vita.”

One of his most remembered assignments was to photograph Senator John Kennedy at home for Look magazine, just before his presidential run.

“First impressions mean a lot to me and my impression of him when we met was a man of great personal warmth and humanity,” said Vaccaro. “I also found, surprisingly, a strong expression of humility. We stayed friends until that terrible day in 1963.”

Vaccaro has been honored around the world, but especially in France and Germany. Germany put on an exhibition in major cities of photographs from his book Entering Germany.

France presented him with the Legion D’Honneur for his war photography, particularly one of a GI kissing a little French girl.

“For me it summed up liberation, and I want to have three memorials made from this image, two in Europe and one in New York,” he said.

Vaccaro sold his Manhattan penthouse and moved to Long Island City in 1972, because, to him, it represented something of the feel of the Left Bank in Paris. He still loves living in LIC. More recognition is on its way for Vaccaro, with two more books of his work being published, and a major exhibition being planned.

(Photo courtesy Tony Vaccaro and John Vachon)