World War II and Fashion Photographer Tony Vaccaro Dies at 100

Tony Vaccaro, a champion photographer whose pursuit of beauty stemmed from years of childhoood abuse, died on Dec. 28 at the age of 100.

The cause of death was complications from an ulcer surgery in November in Long Island City, according to his son Frank. Vaccaro had lived in Long Island City and a nondenomination service will be held Wednesday at 3 p.m. at 1015 46th Road there.

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His harrowing stint as a World War II photographer unexpectedly led him into the opposite realm of the rarity of fashion. Other photographers didn’t influence him, but Vaccaro admired realists like Louis Farrer, Eugene Smith, Arthur Rothstein and Robert Capa. Asked a few years ago what made Smith different, Vaccaro described him as one of the greatest humanitarians he had ever met. But as for Vaccaro, he “invented photography for himself to suit his visions,” said Frank Vaccaro, who along with his brother David are the copyright holders of Vaccaro’s archives.

His father’s decision to turn over that power of attorney in 2014 astonished his offspring. “It’s funny because he had never let anybody touch his photos. We had never even seen his photos — nobody,” Frank Vaccaro said.

Once housed in what was the largest darkroom in New York City — a 5,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City, Vaccaro’s archives are now in his former apartment nearby. Thousands of limited editions can be found there and an estimated 800,000 negatives — all of which he shot.

Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Vaccaro was a toddler when his family relocated to Bonefro, Italy, in 1924 traveling by sea first via Milan. As the worker foreman for the construction of Route 66 near Vaccaro’s hometown, his father “was threatened to hire only Italians by the Mafia. The existence of Tony was threatened unless they did what he wanted,” Frank Vaccaro said. “He dropped everything and went to Italy immediately.”

After nearly two years of residing in Bonefro, Vaccaro’s mother, who was expecting twins, had a stroke and died. Eighteen months later Vaccaro also lost his father who, following the loss of his wife, had spiraled into a depression and died. Orphaned at the age of 5, Vaccaro was then raised by an uncle, who physically abused him so severely that years later upon being drafted by the U.S. Army his physical examination required showing the welts on his back caused by the child abuse. “He died with permanent welts on his back from the beatings,” his son said. “He always said that during this time he dedicated himself to finding beauty in the world to have as a reason to live.”

US photographer Tony Vaccaro
Photographer Tony Vaccaro at age 90.

During those years of teenage abuse Vaccaro pored over an encyclopedia of art at night in bed, studying the Greek torsos, sculptures and duplications of fine paintings. Vaccaro discovered photography when he came to America. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army following more than two years of service, Vaccaro was offered a colonel’s rate of pay and remained in Europe photographing various industries as part of a propaganda program that had been established to retrain Germans, his son said.

Later in life, Vaccaro admitted that he hoped his legacy would be world peace, and that by photographing the war, no one would ever want to go to war again. “He was wrong but he believed that” his son said, adding how dismayed Vaccaro had been by the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

Bruce Weber, who featured Vaccaro in his new documentary “The Treasure of His Youth: The Photographs of Paolo Di Paolo,” shared the same hometown with Vaccaro. Weber said Friday, “Tony taught me a lot. He was like a great teacher that you wanted to look up to and his pictures always told the truth. Tony always saw the best in things — he saw our world as a playground and a paradise. The world is going to miss Tony Vaccaro.”

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK - 1959 : Italian actress Sophia Loren is lying on her belly holding her head up and playing with her hair while looking at the camera. She is wearing a white fur around her body. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
Sophia Loren, photographed by Tony Vaccaro.

The Vaccaro family returned to the U.S. on Thanksgiving in 1939 and Vaccaro enrolled at Isaac E. Young High School as a ninth grader, meaning that his Italian education had failed him by three years. His diminutive stature — 5 feet 6 inches and 110 pounds — was also a factor in that placement, as well as his inability to speak English at that time. After the war, Vaccaro journeyed Stateside in 1948 for six weeks or so, traveling back with Irving Berlin. They got along so famously that after landing, Vaccaro took the A subway train with Berlin to upper Manhattan before parting. His stay was brief, though, as the photographer traveled back to Paris to try help save Weekend magazine. After that effort collapsed, Vaccaro put down roots in the U.S. a year later for good.

Borrowing a cousin’s Ford, he road-tripped across America solo, intent on “getting to know this country that I fought for,” his son said. While visiting relatives in San Diego over Thanksgiving of 1949, Vaccaro went to buy magazines for them and noticed a magazine cover asking if Fleur Cowles was the greatest editor alive at that time. Wed to Look publisher Michael Cowles, she then helmed Flair magazine.

Convinced he would work for her, Vaccaro drove back to New York along Route 66. With only $48 to his name, he bought a bushel of apples for the trek and filled up the gas tank. After running out of gas and money in Jersey City, he ditched the borrowed car, walked across the George Washington Bridge into New York, printed up his wartime photos, turned up unannounced at Look’s offices with a box of his images and asked to see Cowles. After a long wait, she appeared, peered into his photos and asked if he could shoot fashion like that. Vaccaro answered confidently, despite later confiding to his family that he wasn’t sure and had lied. Hired on the spot, he replaced the then-established Louis Farrar and Arthur Rothstein as Flair’s lead lensman. He later joined Look as the principal fashion photographer, where Rothstein had ascended and other standouts like Stanley Kubrick worked.

Vaccaro’s long-standing career in fashion included portraits and shoots for leading designers like Givenchy and talents like Sophia Loren. His fluency in Italian made him a primary choice for the magazine’s Rome correspondent in 1951 — a post he held for 20 years. Fashion also connected him with his wife, Anja. In 1963, when Marimekko cofounder Armi Ratia debuted her designs in the U.S. by parading four models in an East 57th Street storefront, Vaccaro fell in love with the fourth model on the spot, 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 instructed to call them “Mom” or “Dad.” The family resided in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park for years until their author neighbor Nancy Friday offered $335,000. In a family meeting, Vaccaro insisted they accept it, imagining — mistakenly — that that kind of money would never be offered again.

American actress and singer Eartha Kitt (1927 - 2008) looks at her reflection in a full-length mirror as French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy (1927 - 2018) adjusts her dress during a fitting, Paris, France, 1961. (Photo by Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images)
American actress and singer Eartha Kitt looks at her reflection in a full-length mirror as fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy adjusts her dress during a fitting in Paris in 1961.

Vaccaro was predeceased by two sisters, Gloria in 2005 and Suzy in 2019. He is survived by his sons.

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