World-Renowned Photographer Tells of War, Painters, and Actors

NEW YORK—The strange painter was a difficult man to photograph. Pablo Picasso had already turned down a full list of some of the world’s top photographers with an insult given to each, when Lookmagazine handed him another 21 to choose from—hoping to finish their profile on the painter.

Finally, Picasso chose Tony Vaccaro, known for his images from World War II, TIME magazine, and Lookmagazine.

It was 1968 when Vaccaro arrived at the painter’s home in France. He had heard the stories. Cartier-Bresson, the famed French photographer, had tried for two years to get a good picture of Picasso, only to meet with failure. Vacarro refused to accept the same results.

After sharing some champagne and a conversation with the painter and his family, they stepped onto the balcony for the photo shoot. Picasso began striking different poses, and Vaccaro kept still. “He was posing like a model,” Vaccaro said with a laugh.

Looking down at his camera, Vaccaro told the painter that the camera was broken. “So as soon as I say this camera is broken, he stops posing and has this expression, and this is what I wanted—those eyes looking at you,” said Vaccaro, who is now in his late 80s.

The photograph of Picasso is now just one of thousands that fills Vaccaro’s portfolio. It is on display in a gallery in Astoria, New York, along with images of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shah of Iran. The gallery is run by the Cultural Association of the Molise Region in the U.S.A., a cultural group for the area in Italy where Vaccaro grew up.

The Art of Photography

Vaccaro became famous in Europe for his photographs of World War II, and gained fame in the U.S. during his years working for TIME Magazine where his images were often on the cover. Now living in Long Island City, New York, he is working on a photo-book, which will compile his life’s work.

The art of photography, according to Vaccaro, is finding the part that makes each person unique and capturing it in its pure, unaltered form.

“Most photographers pose their pictures,” said Vaccaro, smiling. “They tell the person don’t move, or whatever. Where, I leave them as they are.”

Vaccaro pointed to a photograph of Jackson Pollock looking intense, with his chin resting in his hand. “See what I’m trying to do with portraits? Trying to give you an idea of their personality,” said Vaccaro. “When I arrive at the home of a subject, I will not take a picture until I see what kind of person he is.”

A photograph of the renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell, looking down in deep thought is among the gallery. Viccaro said he wanted to capture the philosopher thinking, “So I asked him a tough question, and it took a long time for him to think about it, you see, and while he was thinking I took the picture,” he said.

Each of his photos tells a story. Faces staring out from frames, moments captured in the 20th century that helped define today’s society.

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