Just when you think you’ve heard every clever anecdote, happy tale and sad story about what it was like to be a soldier or correspondent in World War Two, along comes another one with a wonderful and compelling new twist. This takes a tale of combat and weaves into it an amazing story of artistic determination, and comes complete with a happy ending. How great is that?
Called UNDERFIRE, it’s an HBO Original Documentary about the inspirational Tony Vaccaro, a WWII infantryman who smuggled his $47.00 portable camera into battle and went on to create one of the most comprehensive and intimate records of the war ever recorded.
Back in 1944 Vaccaro was a young man with an eye for photography who decided he’d like to join the official photographic ranks of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps and do his bit. It was easy to see why: they had the admirable job of both relaying the news of the troops at work so that citizens could keep up with their battles, and documenting the action for future War Department records. It would be a career that endured, and provided a legacy.
However, as he recounts in tonight’s documentary, at 21 Vaccaro was told he was too young to qualify as an Army photographer, but didn’t let that dampen his spirits. Undeterred, and despite the knowledge that an infantryman was not supposed to be taking pictures, he decided to bring his aforementioned trusty camera along for the ride when he went to war, and he created something amazing. Vaccaro didn't just snap the occasional image, but an incredible document of what he saw. Before the war ended, he had taken more than 8,000 photos that offer a rare, close-up view of what a soldier on the front lines really sees. His vivid, candid work showed the war as it was actually experienced by the men who were fighting, and it is impossible not to be moved by it. In addition, the camera he used, an Argus C3, was smaller than the large, unwieldy Speed Graphic models the Signal Corps shooters employed. And because it was a 35mm range-finder camera, Vaccaro could react very quickly and shoot what he was seeing, as it happened.
On top of all of that, he became very resourceful when it came to the end result. Naive enough to believe he could find a camera shop on the European front to actually develop his negatives, Vaccaro instead found a shop that had been badly shelled. Picking through the ruins, he found the chemicals he needed and developed the film himself in four standard issue army helmets, hanging the negatives on nearby trees.
Highly decorated with medals such as the Legion of Honor from France, the World Press Photo Gold Medal, and the Art Director's Gold Medal, World War II veteran Vaccaro was also wounded in action - more than once - when fighting abroad. He told CNBC: "I did the war, Omaha beach to Berlin, and I was wounded twice, and I could have gotten killed many times”. He became familiar with death and dying, and photographed it with great respect and poignancy. "The Last Steps of Private Jack Rose" is a Vaccaro photo caught at the moment an explosion ended the man's life, whilst "White Death" is an image of the corpse of an American soldier partially covered in snow. Vaccaro later discovered the man was his close friend, Henry Tannenbaum.
Vowing never to return to war photography again, after he returned home and recovered from his experiences abroad Vaccaro chose to “show beauty to the world”. He went on to work with the likes of Harper's Bazaar as a fashion photographer, and soon to celebrate his 94th birthday, still shoots today. He is a wonderful subject and that is what makes this documentary such a joy.
UNDERFIRE premieres on Rialto Channel on Thursday 9th February at 8.30pm