The BBC named him the ‘greatest combat photographer of WWII’, but Tony Vaccaro’s powerful record of the Second World War almost didn’t happen…
In 1943, the 20-year-old Italian-American was drafted into the battlefields of Europe. Against orders, he brought with him a newly-purchased Argus C-3 camera and began photographing his experience through a torn buttonhole in his jacket. His risky endeavour was discovered and he was ordered to stop but, thankfully, the decision was overruled by a sympathetic Major, with one proviso; gun first, camera second. Just one quarter of the 8,000 images that Vaccaro took during the war survived. The rest were either seized for censorship or destroyed by environmental conditions. What remains, though, is one of the most important photographic accounts of World War Two.
The Getty Images Gallery in Soho is holding the UK’s first exhibition of Vaccaro’s work in almost 50 years, and it’s superb. There are 56 photographs from the 95-year-old’s collection, which chart the unusual path of his career. Starting with his experience of frontline combat and Europe’s post-war reconstruction, the show shifts seamlessly to his later work, ranging from fashion shoots to Hollywood film sets and portraits of cultural icons.
Arthur Rothstein once said, ‘Tony’s speciality is versatility’, but his work is tied together by his empathy and innate ability to depict beauty, even when least expected. In White Death, a soldier’s body lies partially submerged in snow, appearing as if gently embraced by nature. Before realising the deceased was one of his closest friends, Vaccaro photographed the corpse respectfully, driven by his desire for ‘the world to witness the beauty in such a tragic death’. The monochrome scene, filled with ethereal white, is among the most poignant images of the Second World War.
Firing Line in Hürtgen Forest is a similarly remarkable image. Alone behind a snowdrift, three allied soldiers lie in perfect symmetry, staring down the barrels of their rifles. Their hard, metallic weapons contrast with the soft, snow-blanketed scene. Disconcertingly beautiful, deceptively peaceful, it takes a moment to notice their fingers press down on triggers. A site of great tragedy, Hürtgen Forest was the single deadliest battle in U.S. history.
For four years after the war, Vaccaro chose to stay on in Europe to photograph its reconstruction. Echoing the exhibition’s title, images such as Kiss of Liberation, Il Paradiso and The Dawn provide a sense of rebirth, while Hitler’s Window delivers a particularly contemplative scene. Captured with impeccable composition, three allied soldiers stand in reflection, looking out of a cinema-sized window in Hitler’s home. In stark juxtaposition, before them is the calm, bright majesty of the Bavarian Alps, behind them the dark rubble of Hitler’s lair.
In 1949 Vaccaro returned to America. After the horrors of war, he decided to photograph only the positive side of humanity, heralding in the next chapter of his career. From actors to popes, philanthropists to artists, Vaccaro documented luminaries around the world and his portraits from this time are captivating. Sugar Ray Robinson arm-wrestles Anna Magnani, Eartha Kitt shimmers in rose-gold, Picasso emits a humourless gaze and Georgia O’Keefe stares at us through cheese.
Working for publications like Life and Harper’s Bazaar in the golden era of magazine journalism, Vaccaro’s projects included everything from feature profiles to fashion photography and travel shoots. His iconic photographs of Hollywood and New York uniquely reflect their time, while luxurious images such as Givenchy by the Pool (think ’60s sun-soaked luxury) bring to life a bygone era. Vaccaro’s exhibition captures an inspiring path from shadow to light. Rich in empathy, art and beauty, it’s a deeply compelling journey.
Tony Vaccaro: From Shadow to Light runs at Getty Images Gallery until 27 October 2018. Photos by Tony Vaccaro courtesy of Getty Images and Monroe Gallery of Photography. For more information visit the website.