When Jim Salzano got the call to shoot a short video interview featuring photographer Tony Vaccaro, he didn’t know who he was. “And I know a lot about photography,” Jim laughed.
The assignment was from long-time client Hallowed Ground, the publication of the American Battlefield Trust. Jim has shot several pieces for the magazine, which primarily features stories about the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Long-time collaborator, creative director Jeff Griffith wanted to do a video series interviewing battlefield photographers from different conflicts.
Tony Vaccaro is best known for the 8,000 photographs he took during the last year of World War II—of action on the front line and portraits of the men with whom he served. But what’s most interesting is that Vaccaro wasn’t assigned to the 83rd Infantry Division as a photographer.
A 21-year-old draftee with a passion for photography, he took an Argus C3 35mm camera with him to Europe. Compelled by compassion for what was happening in Europe, Vaccaro took it upon himself to document what he saw.
“The Army said to him, ‘If you want to take pictures, that’s fine, knock yourself out, but you’re a soldier first.’ They didn’t realize how talented he was—technically and aesthetically sharp,” explained Jim.
The assignment from Hallowed Ground was for a live-action piece, but Jim also wanted to do a portrait.
“Going to the studio was really amazing. He took his jacket off and put his little smock on. I thought, ‘This guy is such a master.’ I thought it would be a little intimidating to shoot him but he’s just such a naturally relaxed guy, and it really comes through,” recalled Jim.
The image he’s holding is one of his most famous from WWII, of a soldier kissing a little French girl during a spontaneous celebration in St. Briac, France, in August 1944. Years later, Vaccaro went back to France and reconnected with the two women dancing in the background of the photo.
Being a soldier first and then making a decision to photograph as the conflict was happening is one of the reasons his imagery of WWII is so powerful. An important photograph from that collection is called The Last Step. It was taken as one of the men he was fighting with was running across a field. As Vaccaro was photographing him, a mortar round went off in front of his subject. Vaccaro captured the image at the moment of death.
“During the war, he wanted to dignify these men who were giving up their lives every day. He was always concerned about people’s feelings, about how he could make a great picture and portray them with the most dignity possible. Even after the war, he always came back to the idea of compassion and dignity. He continues to carry that through his life, personally and professionally,” said Jim.
Vaccaro went on to have a successful career as a fashion and lifestyle photographer in the decades after the war. He shot for Life, Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country. His subjects include Marcel Marceau, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Lloyd Wright, and John F. Kennedy. He’s won dozens of awards and published half a dozen books of photography, but somehow, he remains relatively unknown.
“His portraits of Picasso and Sophia Loren are on the wall next to his desk. You look at these pictures, and it’s as if Arnold Newman or Irving Penn or Horst took them. The portraits he took of the men in his battalion look like the work of August Sander. The breadth of his style and versatility is just amazing,” said Jim.
Now 95, Vaccaro is long retired from professional photography, but he still likes to take pictures. “He was taking pictures of us while we were shooting him,” said Jim. He has been featured in the HBO Films documentary “Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro” and regularly exhibits in small galleries in the U.S. and Europe. Jim’s piece for Hallowed Ground will be released in mid-2019.