When an exhibition of Tony Vaccaro’s work opens at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, later this year, it will complete the long journey home of portraits Vaccaro shot of the famed painter at her ranch in nearby Abiquiu more than 45 years ago.
The show, “O’Keeffe Illuminated: Photographs by Tony Vaccaro,” will include some 30 candid images Vaccaro captured of O’Keeffe over a two-week period in 1960, on assignment for LOOK magazine.
While the historical value of these rarely seen photos by the 83-year-old Vaccaro is worth the price of admission alone, the real legacy is his signature portrait style, which still has a contemporary look today.
Capturing fresh images of the notoriously stoic O’Keeffe—who had already stood before the lenses of some the world’s most famous photographers—was no easy feat. Rather than take the approach of previous shooters, who had her simply pose in front of her famous paintings, Vaccaro was seeking something more intimate.
For days, he discreetly trailed O’Keeffe at her ranch while she, at first, completely ignored him as he snapped away. The frosty treatment was intentional. O’Keeffe was peeved that LOOK hadn’t sent either photographer she had requested: Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon. It was only after Vaccaro cooked her steak Florentine and fettuccine Alfredo that she began to warm up to him. Some of his best images of her, such as a playful shot of O’Keeffe looking through the hole of a piece of Swiss cheese, were captured then.
In a recent interview with Studio Photography, Vaccaro explained the technique and benefits of his “Bang Style,” which he developed in 1944 while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, and which is still imitated by photographers today. “When I shoot, I work with three cameras with lenses focused at three different lengths—3 to 6 feet, 7 to 12 feet, and 12 feet to infinity—so I don’t need to focus. I just pick the camera I want and when I see the expression or feeling, ‘bang!’ I take the picture,” he explains. “What you get when you use this style are emotions that are more enduring than composition or technique. Keep it raw, keep it honest.”
Vaccaro would employ this style on many of his assignments for LOOK, LIFE, Time, and other magazines, capturing timeless portraits of Pablo Picasso, Maria Callas, Alexander Calder, Ursula Andress, Willem de Kooning, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other notables.
A dedicated Leica M3 and M4 shooter, Vaccaro loves their “silence and their smoothness.” His lighting setups are mostly natural light, but with some use of strobes. “I use the strobes not to look like strobes but to imitate natural light,” he says. “I prefer to shoot fast. Most of the strobes are set at 1/500 or 1/1000 second. I always go for indirect light because the light becomes very weak, and when it’s weak you can keep your lenses wide open, so the images are always crisp.”
While his portraits have a timeless quality, Vaccaro is quite aware that the negatives they were captured on do not, so he’s come up with a unique method of storing them. After an incident where a cat fell asleep on glassine envelopes and its body heat melted the wax of the glassine, ruining the negatives, Vaccaro switched to rolling them in 100 percent cotton, acid-free paper from Southworth, storing them in fireproof steel and cement cabinets.
Though his methodology for printing—all of which he does in a darkroom in his apartment in Queens, New York—has remained largely the same, Vaccaro has adapted to the changing times. He said he purchased the last box of Kodak Professional Polymax Fine-Art B&W paper from B&H Photo in New York late last year after Kodak discontinued the line. Since then, he’s made a successful switch to Ilford Multigrade IV FB Fiber paper.
“The Kodak was a great paper. At one time it was the best,” Vaccaro says. “But the Ilford is great, too. You just have to learn to adapt.”