NEW YORK—At a cozy Italian restaurant in Long Island City, renowned photographer Tony Vaccaro was flipping through the pages of his book, Entering Germany: Photographs 1944–1949, as Mozart’s music was playing lightly in the background. The walls were elegantly decorated with his photo collections, photographs that captured both the ugliest and the most beautiful moments of humanity.
During World War II, Vaccaro was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought on the Western front for two years. After serving as a private in the 83rd Infantry Division, he returned to the United States and worked for various publications like LIFE and Look Magazine, cementing his status as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.
His most famous works, however, remain those that he took during the war in Europe.
Capturing the War
As Vaccaro flipped through his photographs, he demonstrated how the lines within each frame converged at the vanishing point, while lying parallel to each other. He drew a set of lines to illustrate his point.
There was an underlying principle behind his need for such meticulous attention to composition: “[In] photography, you always must have order, always. … Every sense we have likes something and doesn’t like other things. The eye also is the same way. It likes certain lines, it doesn’t like other lines.”
Vaccaro went on to describe the human muscles that control eye movement and the need for both the photograph and the moving picture to accommodate the way the eye perceives. What is comfortable for the eyes is also visually appealing. “The eye is very simple. Beautiful, but very simple. … This is what tells you what’s a beautiful picture and what’s not a beautiful picture. If the picture makes you [your eyes] work hard, it is not a good picture.”
Vaccaro’s preference for simplicity is evident in his works: He often captures moments that are sparing in composition, but packed with emotional feeling. For example, when Vaccaro came to the photos of the Normandy landings on D-Day, he stopped at one of American soldiers stepping into a jet before heading to France, as people bid farewell to them in the background. Vaccaro recalled, “Most of the Air Force pilots were shot to death by the German soldiers before they landed in Normandy.”
Another photo captured a soldier at the moment just before he was shot and killed. Of the piece titled “The Last Step of PFC Jack W. Rose,” Vaccaro said, “Jack was my buddy from New York. This picture was taken on Jan. 11, 1945, in a battle that liberated Belgium.
“I was hiding behind a tree while Jack was shot. I had a gun in one hand and the camera in the other hand. I took this picture of him before he fell to the ground and never got up again.”
At the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, on the border of Belgium and Luxemburg, Private Henry Tannenbaum from New York was killed in action. After one of the war’s deadliest battles had ended, Henry Tannenbaum’s body was found untouched, lying face down on the ground. White snow had fallen and blanketed the entire frame, covering the deceased soldier until one could only make out his boots, backpack, and helmet, and the rifle that lay tossed to the side.
Almost everyone in the division was killed except for the platoon sergeant, Harry Shoemaker, who survived to tell Henry Tannenbaum’s story.
Harry Shoemaker and Tony Vaccaro later returned to the battlefield, which by then was filled with grotesque dead bodies. Only Tannenbaum’s body lay peacefully in the snow. Vaccaro took this picture and named it “White Death: Photo Requiem for a Dead Soldier, Private Henry I. Tannenbaum.” The photo went on travel exhibition throughout Europe for half a century.Forty-five years later, Vaccaro and Henry Tannenbaum’s son visited the forest where his father was killed. Coincidentally, they discovered that the area had been converted into a Christmas tree farm—“Tannenbaum” is German for “fir tree,” and fir trees are widely used as Christmas trees.
Next…The horrors of war that Vaccaro witnessed