When I told EM we’d bought tickets for our yearly trip to New York he suggested to visit and interview Tony Vaccaro. I never heard that name before so I looked him up. His bio reads, “Born on the 22nd of December 1922”.
We had email contact with his daughter-in-law and since EM himself did already an elaborate interview In 2018, I wanted to ask him specifically about working in the darkroom printing his own work. And of course to see what his life was about nowadays.
All excited after a night staying up late reading one of his books and watching a documentary about his life, my girlfriend and I went to Brooklyn to find Mr. Vaccaro very much alive and in good health. Quite impressive for a 97-year-old photographer whose memories and work go back countless decades. He started off as a Private in the US Army, fighting, shooting and photographing his way through 1944/45 France and Germany.
It was here he made a whole body of work filled with impressive photos with a rare sense of lived immediacy.
When he came back to the States, he started a second successful career with shoots from everybody from Sophia Loren to John F Kennedy. His website is a curation of who is who of 20th century America.
It also turned out that Tony loves to talk!
It was existing to hear these stories from this legendary man himself. He told us about how he developed film in the helmet of his fellow soldiers during the war, how he met Victor Hasselblad, about his New York apartment close to Central Park, his shoot with Sophia, Georgia O’Keeffe, Enzo Ferrari. But he stopped printing a year ago and it was difficult to keep him focused on the things I planned to ask. He had to much fun talking about anything which erupted from his memory.
We were able to also talk a bit to his son, his wife and one man dedicated to saving his old negatives from slow but steady decay. They told us about the expositions they organize, how they sell the high-quality prints and how every exposition has, besides his known work, some new fresh scans.
Mostly we did what every Taoist would do, we gave in and enjoyed his stories. Immensely. I got to see his old gear, hold his first camera and look around in amazement in a room filled from the floor to the ceiling with memorabilia, not just postcards but paintings, drawings, photo prints, awards and more. Every inch has a story to tell.
Just to illustrate how many lives Tony has lived and people he has met he had a surprise for us just as we got in. “Ah you are from the Netherlands”! “I had a good friend there, Karel Appel“. That got my eyebrows locked in a twisted position because after Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh, Karel Appel is the most famous Dutch painter and also way more fun than those ancient dudes (look up Cobra.)
But Tony was not ready just yet, he pointed to a painting on the wall with a photo next to it, “look that’s one of the paintings he gave me”, it really did look like an original Karel. Still not ready. He opened a cupboard filled with many works probably enough for a few afternoons of alternate stories and whipped out another Appel.
And to silence any healthy skepticism one should posses in such moments, his assistant opened a whole folder of never seen before photos Tony took of Karel and one really funny one of them together. A beautiful Kodak moment of them in a convertible both happy and with apparent friendship.
After that, we went for an espresso in a local Italian restaurant. A mid-day stroll he seemed to do every day, “Hi Tony! The usual?” Some of his most famous works were hanging on the wall. We sat on the bar stools drinking the best of Italian inventions before we got out again and I was finally able to take some pictures of Tony himself.
These five frames were shot with my Canon EOS 1v. A modern analog camera with zero nostalgia in contrast with this meeting. It does look indistinguishable from my digital one. But the Fujifilm NEOPAN 100 ACROS film managed to turn it into something I grew quite fond of and which at least for me, captures the memories of meeting this great photographer in November 2019.
Please Tony, stay healthy and maybe in a few years we can come again and congratulate you with your hundredth birthday!
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This series is produced in conjunction with Hamish Gill's excellent 35mmc.com. Head on over to read the other half of these stories there.
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