Overview: In World War II, Tony Vaccaro played two risky roles, serving as a combat infantryman on the front lines, as well as a photographer who shot 8,000 photographs. Though he began as a young GI eager to record the war, he vowed never to take another war photo on the day the conflict ended, horrified by what he had seen.
Directed by Max Lewkowicz (the New York Emmy-winning Morgenthau), this documentary chronicles the life and vision of this remarkable man, exploring how photography defines the way the public perceives armed conflict, and revealing the sheer difficulty of survival while taking photos in a war zone. Through interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers and Vaccaro himself, this intimate film examines issues raised by witnessing and recording conflict, following him as he retraces his journey across Europe as a soldier, sharing the stories behind some of his most powerful pictures along the way.
Expectations: Now I am not a big WWII buff or of any military campaign for that matter. I historically understand it all I just don’t study it and enjoy it. I think, however, that through the eyes, or should I say lens, of a combat photographer I might be drawn more to the topic. Not only does it appear to a chronicle of the war, but it also, if the trailer below is any indication, an examination of the artistic value of some of Vaccaro’s images.
Gut Reaction: After 1 hour and 11 minutes I’m left stunned. I thought perhaps it would be tough to get through UNDERFIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF PFC. TONY VACCARO and it ended up totally being an engrossing and powerful film for me in the end. It was just that because of two strong points. One was the personality of Tony Vaccaro himself and the secondly, the multiple directions this film took us in. Let me explain.
First, UNDERFIRE is a historical trip through WWII as seen by the route taken by the 83rd Army Infantry. Recounted moments from Omaha Beach, Battle of the Bulge through to D-Day are retold. Of course, that campaign was told through Vaccaro. He offers his perspective as an infantryman and a photographer and as a compelling storyteller forever changed by what he did and saw. He is so expressive in his words and his feelings.
The other side of the story is all about the images taken from Vaccaro’s camera. We don’t just see the pictures, but we are taken to the very spot they were taken. We are taken to the very spot where many of his comrades died, where he dug foxholes, walked through villages and where a German tank soldier was burned alive. It is gripping imagery and powerful words. To top it off experts in the photographic arts and journalism weigh in on the impact and significance of Vaccaro and his work. I was captivated every step of the way.
NY Post: What did you find remarkable about Tony’s story?
Max Lewkowicz: It wasn’t his job to photograph; he did it because they allowed him. He was an infantryman. You have to shoot and kill people. At the end of the film he says, “I was evil for 272 days, but not forever.” I realized he was suffering his entire life, as many vets have, from PTSD. It’s the story of a real human being who’s cast into a world of horror, but besides having to live with it like most soldiers do, he also had this incredible drive as an artist to photograph it.
NYP: What happened to them after the war?
ML: The first bunch of photos he took, he sent back to his sister in New Rochelle. They never got to her— we believe photographs that came back that weren’t official Signal Corps photographs were destroyed immediately. He said, “OK, the only way I’m going to do this is if I develop the film myself.” In the foxhole in sheer darkness, he took his film, put the chemicals in helmets, made the photos, hung them on the branches, then put them in his pack — that’s why there are so many scratches on them.
NYP: When did his photos gain recognition?
ML: He was not known at all as a conflict photographer. Immediately after the war, regiments would publish these memorial books … He had a bunch published in [those]. Except for that, nobody saw them until the ’90s. He was in Europe and they were honoring him for other [fashion photography] work that he did. He showed them some of these images. They said, “Oh my god, how many of these do you have?”
NYP: How did he feel about participating in the documentary?
ML: It was almost therapy for him. He would sit with me on Omaha Beach … He was talking to me like a therapist and I’m asking him the questions. He was very affected by the experience of going back. He had been back to Europe many times for his fashion photography work but not in the spot of combat. It brought out those feelings of his humanity.
In Conclusion: It was that humanity that drew me in. The documentary really works because of the way all the different perspectives weave this powerful tale with Vaccaro and his pictures always the focus. Instead of just viewing the exhibition of his works, but going to the locales and hearing Vaccaro’s reaction to being there again makes UNDERFIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF PFC. TONY VACCARO one of my favorite documentaries of 2016.
Next: MARATHON: THE PATRIOTS DAY BOMBING debuts Monday, November 21 at 8:00pm. This documentary revisits the April 15, 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon through the prism of individuals whose lives were forever changed by the attacks.