“I want a great person. Somebody who gives something to humanity.”
That’s how Tony Vaccaro chose his subjects for his photography in a career spanning more than 70 years. He has used this criteria to capture the essence of some of the 20th century’s most iconic figures.
They include Pablo Picasso (“I wanted to see if what his wife had written about him was true. It wasn’t”), Salvador Dali (“He kept me waiting for two hours, and I scolded him for it”), Jackson Pollock (“I teased him that he would be known as a paint dripper so he painted me a face”) and Frank Lloyd Wright (“He was simply one of the greatest men I knew.”)
His work is the subject of Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro, a documentary screening as a part of the Gold Coast Film Festival. Immediately after the screening, viewers are invited to the Gold Coast Arts Center for the opening reception of the gallery exhibition, Tony Vaccaro: An American Photographer. The event will feature a Q&A with Vaccaro, Writer/Director/Producer Max Lewkowicz and Producer/Writer Valerie Thomas.
The film offers a tantalizing glimpse of Vaccaro’s career, which began in the U.S. Army during World War II. His first major assignment was to photograph the impact of the Americans in Germany. These magnificent photographs formed the basis of a Taschen published book Entering Germany.
After returning to the U.S. and dropping out of college – “I felt like I knew everything,” he said – Vaccaro travelled around the country in a 1943 Chevrolet. One day he saw a copy of Business Week magazine with Fleur Cowles on the cover. He approached her for work and she hired him straight away. He started with Flair, and was quickly booked for photographic assignments by Life, Look and the other great publications of that period.
During this time Vaccaro moved from Long Island to Greenwich Village and regularly hung out at the Cedar Tavern with Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning and others.
At the same time, and for the next three decades, he began to photograph an extraordinary array of celebrities, and of course, some of the most beautiful women too; Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Liz Taylor, Maria Callas, Ali McGraw and the Europeans, Sophia Loren (“one of the greatest women I ever met”), Gina Lollabrigida (“she cooked for me”) Anna Magnani, and Anita Ekberg, the star of “La Dolce Vita.”
“Marlene Dietrich tried to seduce me,” Vaccaro recalls. “It was in a hotel in Monte Carlo, and when I came into the room she was nearly naked, and threw herself into my arms. I had a young female assistant with me and this upset her.
“She told us both to get out because she was not going to get a simple one-on-one seduction,” he continues. “I was 37 and she was 73. She had a habit of giving a watch to every man she had an affair with. I did not want that watch.”
One of his most remembered assignments was to photograph U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) at home for Look magazine, just before his presidential run.
“First impressions mean a lot to me and my impression of him when we met was a man of great personal warmth and humanity,” said Vaccaro. “I also found, surprisingly, a strong expression of humility. We stayed friends until that terrible day in 1963.”
Vaccaro has been honored around the world, but especially in France and Germany, which put on an exhibition in major cities of photographs from Entering Germany. France presented him with the Legion D’Honneur for his war photography, particularly one of a GI kissing a little French girl.
“For me it summed up liberation, and I want to have three memorials made from this image, two in Europe and one in New York,” he said.
Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro is screening 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5 at Bow Tie Great Neck Squire, 115 Middle Neck Rd, Great Neck. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit tonyvaccarofilm.com