Tony Vaccaro, a champion photographer whose pursuit of beauty stemmed from years of childhood abuse, died Dec. 28 at the age of 100.
The cause of death was complications from ulcer surgery last month at his Long Island City home, according to his son Frank. A non-denominational service will be held on Wednesday at 3pm on 1015 46th Street in Long Island City.
His harrowing stint as a WWII photographer unexpectedly took him into the opposite realm of fashion rarity. Other photographers did not influence him, but Vaccaro admired realists such as Louis Farrer, Eugene Smith, Arthur Rothstein and Robert Capa. “He invented photography for himself to fulfill his visions of it,” said Frank Vaccaro, who along with his brother David are the copyright holders of the Vaccaro archives.
His father’s decision to hand over that power of attorney in 2014 amazed his offspring. “It’s funny because he never let anyone touch his photos. We’d never even seen pictures of him, no nobody,” said Frank Vaccaro.
Now housed in 5,000 square feet in Long Island City, the Vaccaro Archives also boast the largest darkroom in New York City. There you can find thousands of limited editions and some 800,000 negatives, all shot by him.
Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, Vaccaro was a child when his family moved to Bonefro, Italy in 1924 traveling first by sea via Milan. As master builder for the construction of Route 66 near his father Vaccaro’s hometown “he was threatened by the Mafia to hire only Italians. Tony’s existence was threatened unless they did what he wanted,” said Frank Vaccaro. “He dropped everything and went straight to Italy.”
After nearly two years of residence in Bonefro, Vaccaro’s mother, who was expecting twins, suffered a stroke and died. Eighteen months later Vaccaro also lost his father who, following the loss of his wife, had fallen into depression and died. Orphaned at the age of five, Vaccaro was then raised by an uncle, who physically abused him so badly that years later, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army, his physical exam required bruises to show on his back caused by child abuse. “He died with permanent bruises on his back from the beatings,” said his son. “He always said that in this period he was dedicated to finding in the world the beauty to have as a reason for living”.
During those years of adolescent abuse Vaccaro studied an encyclopedia of art in bed at night, studying Greek torsos, sculptures and duplications of fine paintings. Vaccaro discovered photography when he came to America. After receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Army after more than two years of service, Vaccaro was offered a colonel’s pay and remained in Europe photographing various industries as part of a propaganda program that had been set up to retrain the Germans, said his son.
In later life, Vaccaro admitted that he hoped his legacy would be world peace, and that by photographing war, no one would ever want to go to war again. “He was wrong but he believed it,” his son said, adding how appalled Vaccaro had been about the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Bruce Weber, who played Vaccaro in his new documentary “The Treasure of His Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo,” shared the same hometown with Vaccaro. Weber said on Friday: “Tony taught me a lot. He was like a great teacher you wanted to look up to and his pictures of him always told the truth. Tony always saw the best in things: he saw our world as a playground and a paradise. The world will miss Tony Vaccaro.
The Vaccaro family returned to the United States on Thanksgiving Day in 1939, and Vaccaro enrolled at Isaac E. Young High School as a ninth grader, meaning his Italian upbringing had let him down by three years. His short stature – 5’6” and 110 lbs. – was also a factor in that position, as was his inability to speak English at the time. After the war, Vaccaro first traveled to the United States in 1948 for about six weeks, returning with Irving Berlin. They got along so well that after landing, Vaccaro took the A subway train with Berlin to Upper Manhattan before parting ways. His stay was short-lived, however, as the photographer returned to Paris to try to help save Weekend magazine. After that effort failed, Vaccaro took root in the United States for good a year later.
Borrowing a cousin’s Ford, he crossed America solo with the intent of “getting to know this country that I fought for,” said his son. While visiting relatives in San Diego during Thanksgiving 1949, Vaccaro went magazine shopping for them and noticed a magazine cover asking if Fleur Cowles was the greatest living editor at the time. Wed to Look editor Michael Cowles, then ran Flair magazine.
Convinced he would work for her, Vaccaro drove back to New York via Route 66. With just $48 to his name, he bought a bushel of apples for the ride and filled up with gas. After running out of gas and money in Jersey City, he ditched his borrowed car, crossed the George Washington Bridge into New York, printed wartime photos of himself, showed up unannounced at the Look offices with a box of his pictures and asked to see Cowles. After a long wait, she appeared, peeked into her photos of her, and asked him if she could take fashion photos like that. Vaccaro responded confidently, even though he later confided to his family that he wasn’t sure and that he lied. Hired on the spot, he replaced then-established Louis Farrar and Arthur Rothstein as Flair’s lead lensman. He then joined Look as the lead fashion photographer, where Rothstein had ascended and other standouts like Stanley Kubrick were working.
Vaccaro’s long career in fashion included portraiture and photo shoots for major designers such as Givenchy and talents such as Sophia Loren. His fluency in Italian made him a prime choice for the magazine’s Rome correspondent in 1951, a post he held for 20 years. Fashion has also linked him with his wife, Anja. In 1963, when Marimekko co-founder Armi Ratia debuted her designs in the United States, showing four models at an East 57th Street showcase, Vaccaro fell in love on the spot with the fourth model, who later became his wife.
Like Vaccaro, the Finnish beauty was also an orphan, and as a nod to that, their sons Frank and David were never asked to call them “mom” or “dad.” The family resided in a penthouse overlooking Central Park for years until their writer neighbor Nancy Friday offered $335,000. At a family reunion, Vaccaro insisted they take it, figuring — wrongly — that kind of money would never be offered again.
Vaccaro predeceased two sisters: Gloria in 2005 and Suzy in 2019. He is survived by his children.