Art & Culture

Tony Vaccaro, war veteran, shutterbug and documentary subject, shows his life in pictures

Joseph Wade
Tony Vaccaro via Monroe Gallery

By his own admission, photographer Tony Vaccaro has been very lucky.

The veteran shutterbug and World War II veteran was actually wounded in action—more than once—when fighting abroad, he told CNBC this week.

"I did the war, Omaha beach to Berlin, and I was wounded twice, and I could have gotten killed many times. It was luck. Luck. Luck. Luck," Vaccaro said at his pop-up exhibit in New York City, where a clutch of his photographs were on display.

Vaccaro, highly decorated with medals such as the Legion of Honor from France, the World Press Photo Gold Medal, and the Art Director's Gold Medal, is the subject of HBO documentary, "Under Fire: The untold story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro." The story illustrates how the photographer documented the conflict as he fought with the 83rd Infantry Division.

Vaccaro explained that he carried his camera because he was determined to show the real war to the world—in thousands of pictures.

In doing so, Vaccaro faced enemy gunfire and had to bend the rules in order to get his photos: One photo was taken surreptitiously through the buttonhole of his jacket, capturing the allied fleet steaming with thousands of GIs to France.

Sadly, some of his fellow soldiers were not so lucky, as many met their demise on that foreign soil. During one brush with death, he told CNBC that "I was sitting in my foxhole" and I went to spit, and "shrapnel passed right where my body was" and obliterated a box filled with rations.

"The Last Steps of Private Jack Rose" is a famous image caught at the moment an explosion ended the man's life. In "White Death," an image of the corpse of an American soldier partially covered in snow, Vaccaro later discovered the man was his close friend, Henry Tannenbaum.

The end of the war was nearly the end of Vaccaro's photography. "For about many years, I couldn't work. I was sick," he said. But he showed his work at a gallery in Frankfurt, Germany which the editor of the military news publication Stars and Stripes attended—and offered him a job on the spot. He quickly accepted.

"So I worked four-to-five years. I thought I was so sick from the war that I couldn't get along back in the states," Vaccaro said.

He did return home, gaining employment with magazines such as Look, Life and Harper's Bazaar as a fashion photographer. And he shot some of the most famous people of his time. A partial list included the late Leonard Cohen, and Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol's muse Ivy Nicholson, President John F. Kennedy and co-founder of the Guggenheim museum, Peggy Guggenheim.

Vowing never to return to war photography again, Vaccaro chose to show beauty to the world.

Soon to celebrate his 94th birthday, Vaccaro still shoots, focusing on people strolling through his line of fire in New York City where he is still actively producing work at Tony Vaccaro Studio. The current exhibit, "War, Peace, Beauty" at New York's Monroe Gallery, will only be on display through Monday.