According to his son Frank, the cause of death was complications from ulcer surgery at his home in Long Island City last month. A non-denominational service will be held on Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. at number 1015 46p Road in Long Island City.
His harrowing career as a World War II photographer took him unexpectedly into the opposite realm of fashion rarities. He was uninfluenced by other photographers, but Vaccaro admired realists such as Louis Farrer, Eugene Smith, Arthur Rothstein and Robert Capa. “He invented the photograph for himself to adapt it to his visions,” said Frank Vaccaro, who owns the copyright to the Vaccaro Archives with his brother David.
The father’s decision to pass this power of attorney on in 2014 amazed his offspring. “It’s funny because he never let anyone touch his pictures. We’ve 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 boasts the largest darkroom in New York City. There you can find thousands of limited editions and about 800,000 negatives – all of which he made.
Born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Vaccaro was a toddler when his family moved to Bonefro, Italy in 1924, first traveling by sea via Milan. As a workman foreman on the construction of Route 66 near his hometown of Vaccaro, his father “received threats from the Mafia to hire only Italians. Tony’s existence was in jeopardy unless they did what he wanted,” said Frank Vaccaro. “He dropped everything and immediately left for Italy.”
After almost two years in Bonefro, Vaccaro’s mother, who was expecting twins, had a stroke and died. Eighteen months later, Vaccaro also lost his father, who fell into depression after losing his wife and died. Orphaned at the age of five, Vaccaro was then raised by an uncle who physically abused him so severely that years later, after being drafted into the U.S. Army, his physical examination required showing welts on his back caused by child abuse. “He died with permanent welts on his back from beatings,” his son said. “He always said that during this time he devoted himself to the search for beauty in the world to have a reason to live.”
During those years of teenage abuse, Vaccaro spent his nights in bed poring over an art encyclopedia, studying Greek torsos, carvings, and copies of beautiful paintings. Vaccaro discovered photography when he came to America. After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army after more than two years of service, Vaccaro received a colonel’s rate and remained in Europe photographing various industries as part of a propaganda program that was set up to retrain Germans, his son said.
Later in life, Vaccaro admitted that he hoped his legacy would be world peace, and 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 horrified Vaccaro was about 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, lived in the same hometown as Vaccaro. Weber said on Friday: “Tony taught me a lot. He was like a great teacher to look at, and his pictures always spoke the truth. Tony always saw the best in things – he saw our world as a playground and paradise. The world will miss Tony Vaccaro.”
Vaccaro’s family returned to the United States on Thanksgiving Day in 1939, and Vaccaro enrolled at Isaac E. Young High School as a ninth grade student, which meant that his Italian education had failed him by three years. His small height – 5’6″ and 110 pounds. – was also a factor in this placement, as well as his inability to speak English at the time. After the war, Vaccaro first traveled to the United States in 1948 for roughly six weeks, returning with Irving Berlin. They got along so well that after Vaccaro landed, he took the subway A from Berlin to upper Manhattan before parting ways. His stay was short, however, as the photographer returned to Paris to try to help save Weekend magazine. After that effort fell through, a year later Vaccaro took root in the US permanently.
Borrowing a Ford from his cousin, he crossed America alone with the intention of “getting to know the country I fought for,” said his son. While visiting relatives in San Diego on Thanksgiving Day in 1949, Vaccaro went to buy magazines for them and noticed a magazine cover asking if Fleur Cowles was the greatest living editor of the time. Wed to Look publisher Michael Cowles headed Flair magazine.
Convinced that he would work for her, Vaccaro drove back to New York on Route 66. With only $48 in his bank account, he bought a bushel of apples for the trip and filled the gas tank. When he ran out of gas and money in Jersey City, he abandoned his borrowed car, walked across the George Washington Bridge to New York City, printed his wartime photos, showed up unannounced at Look’s offices with a box of his photos, and asked to see Cowles. After a long wait, she showed up, looked at his photos and asked if he could shoot fashion like this. Vaccaro replied confidently, even though he later confided to his family that he was unsure and lied. Hired in-house, he replaced the then-renowned Louis Farrar and Arthur Rothstein as Flair’s chief Objectivist. He later joined Look as the main fashion photographer where Rothstein had climbed and other notables such as Stanley Kubrick worked.
Vaccaro’s long-standing career in fashion has included portraits and photo shoots for leading designers such as Givenchy and talents such as Sophia Loren. His fluency in Italian led him to become the magazine’s first correspondent in Rome in 1951, a position he held for 20 years. Fashion also connected him with his wife Anja. In 1963, when Marimekko co-founder Armi Ratia debuted her designs in the United States parading with four models at East 57p Street shop, Vaccaro immediately fell in love with the fourth model, who later became his wife.
Like Vaccaro, the Finnish beauty was also an orphan, and their sons Frank and David were never instructed to call them “mom” or “dad”. The family lived in a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park for years until their neighbor Nancy Friday offered $335,000. During a family meeting, Vaccaro insisted they accept it, imagining – mistakenly – that this kind of money would never be offered again.
Vaccaro died before the deaths of two sisters – Gloria in 2005 and Suzy in 2019. He left behind sons.