ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When photographer Tony Vaccaro first met Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiú 1960, the artist refused to speak to him for five days.
On assignment from Look magazine, Vaccaro had traveled to New Mexico by train with art editor Charlotte Willard.
O’Keeffe had been expecting a different photographer, one of her favorites, such as Ansel Adams, Todd Webb or Richard Avedon.
Trying his best to charm her, Vaccaro cooked O’Keeffe a steak and fixed her broken washing machine, to no avail.
Suddenly, the topic turned to bullfighting. Vaccaro mentioned he had photographed the great Spanish matador Manolette.
The artist pivoted in her seat to face him. She never looked at Willard again.
“Georgia O’Keeffe kept me waiting for over a month,” the 96-year-old Vaccaro said in a telephone interview from his home in Long Island City, N.Y. “She wanted nothing to do with this kid. At that time I was pretty young and naive. She said, ‘Talk to me about Manolette.’ After that, we became great friends.”
That perseverance served Vaccaro well during World War II and on film and fashion sets across a nearly 80-year career. Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery of Photography is hosting “Tony Vaccaro: La Dolce Vita,” an exhibit of more than 40 photographs through Jan. 19, 2020.
Vaccaro was drafted into World War II at the age of 21. By the summer of 1944, he was on a boat heading toward Omaha Beach six days after the first landings at Normandy. He was determined to photograph the war, bringing his portable 35mm Argus C-3. He fought on the front lines, developing his photos in combat helmets at night and hanging the negatives from tree branches.
When it all ended, he shot “Kiss of Liberation: Sergeant Gene Costanzo kneels to kiss a little girl during spontaneous celebrations in the main square of the town of St. Briac, France, Aug. 14, 1944.”
“I stopped at a cafe and suddenly I see this GI and this little girl kneeling down,” Vaccaro said. “I quickly race there and he started to kiss this little girl three times: to the left and to the right and back again.”
Vaccaro credits an abusive childhood with helping him survive the carnage. He was orphaned when he was 4 years old, when he was adopted by an uncle in Italy.
“He had no idea how to raise a child,” Vaccaro said. “I was black and blue from this man. I had become like an animal to go into every little hole or corner to survive the war.”
After the war, Vaccaro remained in Germany to photograph the rebuilding of the country for Stars And Stripes. Returning to the U.S. in 1950, he started his career as a commercial photographer, eventually working for virtually every major publication: Look, Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Town and Country, Newsweek, and many more. Vaccaro went on to become one the most sought-after photographers of his day, photographing everyone from President John F. Kennedy and Sophia Loren to Pablo Picasso and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The 1960s found him on the film sets of Federico Fellini’s “8½” and “La Dolce Vita.” One image shows a bevy of women posing from the windows of a three-story house.
“One of those houses was really a house of ill repute,” Vaccaro said of “Extras on the set of ‘8½.’ ”
His attention turned to the woman displaying her legs from a window on the lower left.
“Those are all wonderful models,” he continued. “I’m aware one of the ladies was a girl who played around with men.”
He still carries a camera and puts in six or seven hours daily without a break, creating prints in his studio and identifying jobs for his staff. On Nov. 1, he was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum.