EMULSIVE interview #185: I am Tony Vaccaro and this is why I shoot film
It’s impossible to understate Tony Vaccaro’s contribution to the 20th century, be it in his role as World War II combatant and documentarian, or his post-war work in fashion and portrait photography. He is a man who, in his own words, “went after the best”, and for the most part managed to capture them all on film.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Tony over the phone back in June and I’m now finally able to formally welcome him today as my 185th interviewee.
Over to you, Tony.
Hi Tony, what’s this picture, then?
I took this photo just after we had liberated the town of St. Briac Sur Mer on August 14th 1944. The people of the town were celebrating and we were able to do the same. I will never forget the people at this moment. Their pure happiness and joy knowing that their town was free affected everyone there.
We were in the town square, people were dancing, a band was playing and I noticed a GI kissing a child. Now, luckily, the tradition in St. Briac is to kiss three times – I ran as fast as I could across the piazza to take that picture of the third and final kiss. “CLICK” and it was done.
It was all timing, it’s always about timing, a moment later and it would have been gone. I later learned that the GI I photographed kissing the child was born only 30 or 40 miles from where I was – we were neighbours. How funny is that?!
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
TV: I am a 95-year-old photographer born in Pennsylvania in 1922. I was raised in Europe and returned to the USA in my early teens. I have been a photographer for most of my life, some 75 years or so. I have spent my life capturing the souls of the people I have met and I still photograph today.
I always have a camera around my neck and still love sneaking up on people and take pictures!
Over the years I have met and photographed many truly brilliant people; John F Kennedy, Jackson Pollock, Leonard Cohen, Marlene Dietrich, Pablo Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright and Sophia Loren to name a few.
I try to use my photography to tell those people mankind is grateful for what you have given them. Everyone needs to be encouraged and photography is my way of saying thank you for being you.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
TV: I was born in the US but raised in Italy. I was 16 and was at the Vatican visiting the museum. In the museum I saw statues – mostly Ancient Greek – I fell in love. It was there and then that I decided to become a sculptor. The war was beginning in Europe, and by this time I had already decided to come back to America.
Soon after, I moved in with my aunt in New York’s New Rochelle and enrolled at Isaac E. Young High School.
Following that trip to the Vatican, the idea of becoming a sculptor was firmly embedded in me, and one of the first things that I did was to create a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. It was a bust actually, and I still have it! Happy to continue with my sculpture, I showed this masterpiece to one of my professors, Bertram Lewis, who was teaching photography at the time. He said to me, “Tony, it’s nice. It’s pretty but you were born to be a photographer.”
That was it. I followed his instruction.
When I was 18, I paid $47 to buy an Argus C3 – a small 35mm rangefinder camera. Over the years I bought one camera after the other and have about 20 different cameras still with me today, of which about 12 still function. I have many of those little Argus’, Leica and Hasselblad cameras here with me – I even met Victor Hasselblad once! I was sitting on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and noticed a man walking around. He was smaller than me…and I am a small man saying this! He saw my camera (my Hasselblad), and introduced himself by announcing, “Hello! I am Mr Hasselblad!” Can you believe it? That kind of thing doesn’t happen any more.
I shot film through my time in the war – all 272 days from Normandy, through France, Belgium and to Germany. The Army wouldn’t let me be an official war photographer, I was too young, they said. So, I became a regular soldier with a camera instead.
I took that little Argus with me everywhere during my time in the war. Because I was not an official war photographer, I also had to carry all of those negatives with me, too. I didn’t have the same facilities that official photographers did and developed my film when I could with what I could find to hand. Some times were harder than others and more than once I had to convince my fellow soldiers to lend me their helmets so I had something I could develop my film in – I smelled like a dark room the whole time!
I shot everything. I had to show people the reality, the brutality of war.
Of course, there was no other choice for taking pictures other than film at that time but I still shoot film today because I know it, I understand it. Film gives me my look and I am very grateful for it. These days I use ISO 400 color film in my Leica M3, and ISO 200 black and white film in my Hasselblad.
What drives me to shoot today is to enter the soul of the man or woman I’m photographing. I want to transcend the subject and the visual medium and peer into the soul, the moment, the feeling.
These days my studio staff print for me in my darkroom after I have made the first print. I dictate exposure times, blocking techniques, chemical bath times, and chemical bath warm spots that they must “massage”. My daughter in law Maria has been making prints with me since 1994 and I consider her my best darkroom apprentice.
I designed the darkroom myself and it is considered the best darkroom in New York City: 220 square feet with four enlargers.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
TV: Without a doubt, Mr Bartram Lewis. He was my science teacher and started our photography club. He taught me everything about photography. He said to me, “remember, and don’t you forget, you are a born photographer”. He took this young man under his wing and taught him everything.
One day I was not feeling well and stayed home from school. Mr Lewis came all the way from Long Island to New Rochelle (in the 1930s) just to see me…he was 92. Can you imagine that happening today? I will never forget him and what he did for me. He gave me the confidence to remain unique.
I took his words and support seriously and later in life (sometime in the 1960s), I felt a need to travel over the North Pole. I realised that everyone wants to do that; every Tom, Dick and Harry went there. So using some of that “confidence to be unique”, I went over the South Pole instead. There’s an empty barrel of gas there! I flew over it.
I don’t really have anyone in photography influencing me today. It’s just the way I am. I have followed my own life and I planned it very simply. I said to myself, “You must photograph those people who give mankind something”, and I want after them. All of them.
In the process of doing that I feel like I gave mankind something back.
But still, I need to thank my photo editors at Look Magazine, Life Magazine, and Flair for making letting me reach that dream. Arthur Rothstein (Look), John Morris (Life) and Fleur Cowles (Flair) were amongst the most important but nearly every photo editor in New York from 1949 to 1982 used me for the best portrait assignments.
My family joke that I have shot everybody except Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Einstein – a rare example of a joke being very close to the truth!
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
TV: I am completely a film photographer and these days I stick to one Kodak film or another. I love black and white film. The feeling, the power of it.
It’s a conscious decision and I’m very happy with it. I’m still learning every day. It doesn’t matter how long you have been a photographer; things are always different, situations are different, people are different.
What’s your next challenge…your next step? How do you see yourself improving your technique? What aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
TV: There is learning every day. Things will change, they always change. I always feel that if I lost the desire to be upfront, I’d be finished. To take pictures that are challenging, that is my challenge.
The camera gave me something to create. By that I mean it helped me create something that wasn’t there before. The dead soldier, my friend Henry Tannenbaum in the snow…the snow gave me a new style; a new way of seeing things.
Fleur Cowles, Gardner Cowles’ wife and editor of Flair Magazine – called “America’s Most Powerful Woman” on the cover of Newsweek, November, 1949 – gave me his first New York photography job in December 1949, after seeing “White Death”. Based on that single image, my career was started.
I like to photograph people, they challenge me to see beyond their appearance. This is why I went after Ferrari, Kennedy and the others. I like to bring out what is in the person.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
TV: Portraiture…photographing reality.
I like to give. There are brilliant people in the world and I go after them. I want to create special pictures of brilliant people to give something back to them – a thank you to tell them, mankind is grateful for what you have given them.
Formally taking portraits is an intimate experience. It cannot be a quick “snap”. You need to understand the person you are photographing and help the person within be seen.
I took Enzo Ferrari’s portrait in 1956. I travelled from Bonefro to Bologna to meet him and once I arrived he told me that his son passed away just the day before. He took off the black band he was wearing on his left arm and put it away in his pocket. He did not want to be photographed in mourning. If you look at his eyes he was crying.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What do you take with you and why?
TV: My Leica M3, Summicron 50mm lens and a black and white film – anything Kodak. I went to Wetzlar in the mid-1950s to buy that Leica. While I was there someone recognised me (one of the Leica directors at the time) and presented me with the camera.
I continue to use the same camera today and it has taken some of my most famous photos. Right now I have 400-speed film in it
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, where do you go and why?
TV: I don’t know why but I would love to go and shoot all the Hawaiian islands! I may shoot in colour but I love black and white.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
TV: It’s not the people that interest me, it’s the feeling they emit. Not everyone is an interesting subject to photograph and not everyone who is interesting to photograph is interesting all of the time.
I would spend my time with the final roll finding these people and capturing those feelings.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
TV: The misconception is that film photography is just another medium and the mistake is forgetting that in the world that we are faced with, film photography is an art.
It’s all in the lines, the composition and the framing. Geometrically, a picture needs to have value.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
TV: I feel photographers today just snap and go. When you are taking a picture you must have order. If you don’t, the photo is meaningless. The future of photography as a whole is amazing but I don’t think photographers now get to spend as much time with their subjects – I spent weeks with Georgia O’Keefe and Picasso.
It’s all about timing and I was lucky to be a part of the 20th century and be able to capture it.
Photography is an opportunity. You have to sleep with the camera. It’s what gave me the world.
There’s much, much more to Tony’s story than I could squeeze into the interview format – a double-edged sword held fast in the name of keeping things consistent. At 95 years old, he retains both a sharp wit and infectious sense of humour, finding joy in the absurdity of events which happened some 50 plus years ago.
Although it was Tony’s desire to become an official photographer during the Second World War, his superiors’ refusal resulted in the creation of someone far more valuable than a spectator on the sidelines with a camera in hand. As a soldier with a camera, he was afforded a closeness with both the stark reality of war and his comrades – something with modern “embedded” war photographers have spoken about a great deal. It’s not the same if you’re “not in the parade”.
I wanted to spend more time focusing on Tony’s life after World War II and highly recommend that you hunt down HBO’s 2016 documentary, Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro. There’s more in there than I could ever hope to cover in just a single article.
Leaving the soldier and war photographer behind, there’s one thing that sticks out to me about Tony’s career: his single-minded determination to find and capture “the best”.
Tony’s desire to find that special breed of person, from fashion designers to painters, farmers, politicians and stars of stage and screen; and then capture them as a way of giving them thanks for what they had given the world is not something that just anyone could have done – now or then. His body of work is also not something that was created single-handedly, even though the compression of time may give the impression that subjects flowed one after the other in an endless stream. There was a lot of hard work and effort involved that, even with changes to the industry and world we live in today, can serve as an inspiration to anyone wanting to follow his path.
It was a real pleasure to be able to speak with Tony and all jokes aside, to learn somewhat surprised, that he still walks to his studio every day and only recently has begrudgingly accepted a cane for help. I sincerely hope that one day, I will be able to see one of his prints up close for myself and it would be remiss of me not to mention that Tony’s first UK exhibition in over 50 years – “Tony Vaccaro: From Shadow to Light” – is now on at the Getty Images Gallery in London until October 28th. If you can make it, I think you’ll be in for a treat.
Well, once again, a huge thanks to Tony, his daughter in law Maria and son Frank for everything. It was a real pleasure putting this together. You can find more of Tony’s work over at the Vaccaro Studio’s Twitter and of course, the website. Please do check them out.
You’ll find another fresh face for the next EMULSIVE interview in a couple of weeks but in the meantime, why not check out Jens Kotlenga’s review of his stunning Chamonix C45F-2 field camera, my growing list of every single film stock still made today, or my opus: the ever-growing Hasselblad master system guide. That should keep you busy until the middle of the month.
Until next time, keep shooting, folks!
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