Michelantonio Celestino Onofrio Vaccaro was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, on December 20, 1922, to Italian immigrant parents. He was the second of their three children and the only boy. His father Giuseppe Antonio Vaccaro (b. October 14, 1874) was from Bonefro in the Molise region of Italy. In 1926, in the course of the family relocating to Italy, both his parents died; he was raised in Italy by his paternal grandmother where he was physically abused by his father's brother.
With the outbreak of World War II, Vaccaro moved back to the United States in order to escape military service in Italy He graduated from Isaac E. Young High School in New Rochelle, New York, in 1943, and was drafted a few months later into the U.S. Army. He sought an assignment as a photographer with the Army Signal Corps offering photographs taken in high school as evidence of his talent. He was rejected because of his age.
Instead, Vaccaro was sent to Europe as a private in the 83rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He fought in Normandy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. His usual position as a scout provided him with the opportunity to take photographs with the Argus C3 compact 35mm rangefinder camera that he was adept at using. In September 1945, he was discharged from the army. Vaccaro stayed in Germany, where he obtained a job first as a photographer for Audio Visual Aids (AVA) stationed at Frankfurt, and then with Weekend, the Sunday supplement of the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. Until 1949, Vaccaro photographed throughout Germany and Europe, documenting post-war life.
After his return to the U.S. in 1949, he worked for Flair and Look before joining the magazine Life. Between 1950 and 1973 Vaccaro worked extensively as a celebrity and fashion photographer.
He settled in the West Village in 1951 and then on Central Park West in 1955. From 1970 to 1980 he taught photography at Cooper Union. In 1979 he moved both his residence and studio along with his archive of hundreds of thousands of images, to Long Island City. He continued to spend his summers in Rome. He married Anja Kyllikki (1939–2013), a Finnish model, in 1963. They had two sons and separated in 1979. They met when Vaccaro was shooting a series about Marimekko for Life.
Although some 4,000 of his photographs were lost in an accident in 1947 photographs from his extensive wartime archive were published in 2001 in his book, Entering Germany: Photographs 1944-1949 and 2002 in the book Shots of War. In 1994, he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur at the celebrations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy landings.
A museum named after Tony Vaccaro was inaugurated in Bonefro on August 24, 2014.
For more information on Tony and his work visit Tony on Instagram @tonyvaccarophotographer