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Photographer Tony Vaccaro: Still Searching at 99

Tony Vaccaro, Leonard Cohen (photo courtesy of Rye Arts Center). This exhibition includes photographs drawn from 
the Monroe Gallery of Photography Collection, Santa Fe, NM, USA, and the Tony Vaccaro Studios, New York City, USA.

When looking at old photographs, one often instinctively wishes that they were present for the moment during which the photo was taken. Rye Arts Center (RAC)’s latest exhibition fulfills that desire. The works on display by Tony Vaccaro can make an observer feel like they are stepping into a time machine, placing them right behind the photographer’s lens.

Portraits, Personalities, Passion: The Photography of Tony Vaccaro showcases portraits of prominent artists, scenes of war and a selection of the artist’s cameras and personal memorabilia through May 13. 

The RAC exhibited a fifty-year retrospective thirty years ago. Still, co-curator Gail Harrison Roman, after a visit to the artist’s studio, decided it was time to display his work once again. She adds: “Vaccaro’s international reputation as an innovator of creative photographic techniques and artistic presentation is well deserved.” Roman curated the current show with Patrick Cicalo and Sarah Mackay.

Tony Vaccaro was introduced to photography at an early age, and shot more than 8,000 photos while serving in the army during World War II. During this time, he produced insightful, raw images that evoke intense emotion to this day. Cicalo emphasizes that “to do what Tony did, he had to have a certain amount of humility and empathy for his subjects [to be able to] bring back the horrors of war for all of us to see.”

These photographs are attributed to his bravery, fearlessness and trusty Argus C3 camera. This camera was able to withstand the extremely harsh environment, and stayed intact even when Vaccaro had to dive into the dirt to snap the photo he wanted. This camera, just one of many in his large collection, is on display in RAC’s gallery. 

Says Mackay: “These objects bring his past to the present in a very tangible way. I see them not just as vital aspects of his career and artistic practice, but as a collection of treasures.”

Following the war, Vaccaro worked as a photojournalist for several established magazines. On each assignment he was given, he developed a personal relationship with his subjects, helping them to feel comfortable letting their guard down in front of the camera. Whether it was Georgia O’Keeffe playfully posing with a piece of cheese on an unexpected car picnic, Willem de Kooning deep in thought as he stares into his painting or Peggy Guggenheim on a gondola with her dog, Vaccaro spotlights sides of these individuals that we would have never otherwise known. He achieved this by creating honest environmental portraits that unveiled his subjects’ true essence. 

Mackay adds: “Displaying Vaccaro’s celebrity portraits allows viewers to create their own narration and insert themselves into the experience. It humanizes these famous figures.”

This exhibition is a monumental culmination of Vaccaro’s work. It highlights his honest documentation of history and his innate ability to tell a story. “I am part of all these pictures,” Vaccaro says. “Each one is a story.”

As a pioneer of his craft, Vaccaro continues to lay the groundwork for generations of photographers to come. He remains curious and optimistic despite today’s unprecedented world, even after recently surviving COVID-19. 

“Even now, at 99, I’m searching,” he says. “What can I do differently? What can I do that I’ve never done before?”

 

Alyssa Monte is an artist and writer from Mahopac, NY. She earned her BFA in Photography and Journalism from SUNY Purchase in May of 2021.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNews is distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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