Sharon Wohlmuth, photographer of best-selling ‘Sisters’, dies at 75
Sharon J. Wohlmuth, photojournalist who, along with the writer Carol Saline won publishing gold in 1994 with “Sisters”, a text and photo book that featured sets of famous and less famous sisters and became a runaway bestseller, died on February 12 at her home in Philadelphia. She was 75 years old.
His nephew Zachary Joslow confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
Ms. Wohlmuth was a veteran photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer when she and Ms. Saline, senior editor of Philadelphia magazine, developed the idea that became “Sisters”: Ms. Saline would write profiles of various sets of sisters, and Ms. Wohlmuth would photograph the topics.
The three dozen sisters they selected included well-known figures like Coretta Scott King, who featured with her sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, but also people like Bernetta and Margaret Crommarty, sisters from Philadelphia in the 80s who were struggling against health problems. Some of the stories were uplifting; others spoke of personal difficulties or strained relationships.
No major publisher was interested. Many kicked themselves later. “Sisters” was eventually published by Running Press, a small company that had been founded by Ms. Wohlmuth’s husband, Larry Teacher, and her brother, Buz. In late December 1994, the book landed on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. It was still there over a year later.
“Sisters” ultimately stayed on the chart for a remarkable 63 weeks, selling over a million copies and spawning copycats. It also earned Ms. Wohlmuth and Ms. Saline a seven-figure deal from Doubleday for two more books, “Mothers & Daughters” (1997) and “Best Friends” (1998). Both also made the Times bestseller list.
With her evocative photographs – some joyous, some serene, others heartbreaking – Ms. Wohlmuth sought to complement and enhance Ms. Saline’s words.
“Because I’m a photojournalist, I always step back and wait for that exact moment to happen,” Ms. Wohlmuth told the weekly Jewish Exponent in 1997. “It’s not like a formal portrait. It has to be something else there.
Capturing this meant patience. Speaking about “Sisters” on CBS’s “The Early Show” in 2004, on the book’s 10th anniversary, she invokes the theories of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“You have to be quiet,” she said. “And you know what’s going on? They become sisters, and that’s when — Cartier-Bresson talks about the decisive moment.
She added, “I want them to show me who they are as sisters.”
Sharon Barbara Josolowitz was born on September 25, 1946 in Bristol, Connecticut. His father, Philip, was a merchant; his mother, Rebecca (Dressler) Josolowitz, was a homemaker.
She married Edward Wohlmuth in 1966; they divorced in 1974. At that time, she was studying photography at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia. Shortly after graduating in 1975, she was working at The Inquirer.
“Sharon and I were the first and only female photographers to work for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1970s,” recalls Sara Krulwich, now a Times photographer. “She wasn’t really interested in the technical side of photojournalism, but that didn’t matter. His skill was his ability to connect with his subjects in such a real way that they relaxed and opened up their lives to him.
“She has become The Inquirer’s secret weapon,” Ms Krulwich continued. “If a door was closed to everyone, Sharon could still come in and take some great pictures.”
His assignments for the newspaper covered a wide range of topics, from local political and cultural events to stories of international significance. When the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania nearly collapsed in 1979, she was one of three photographers sent to the area. The Inquirer staff won a Pulitzer Prize for this coverage. Two years later, she was in conflict-torn Somalia photographing refugee camps.
Ms. Wohlmuth and Ms. Saline were casual acquaintances when, over brunch, they began discussing sibling bonds. Ms. Saline had just received an embroidery from her sister for her birthday that said something about being friends forever, and Ms. Wohlmuth had long noticed that, in the eyes of her photographer, the sisters gave off a special visual vibe. Running Press gave them a small advance to pursue the idea for the book.
“We spent every penny of our little advance traveling the country photographing and interviewing the sisters we chose,” Ms. Saline said by email, “staying at the cheapest motels and ordering pizzas for dinner”.
The selection process was part research, part chance. Ms Wohlmuth, in a 1995 interview with Newsday, recalled hearing a song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle on her car radio and being struck by the lyrics, then walking to the nearest phone.
“I had the McGarrigles lined up the next day,” she recalled – Anna, Kate and their sister Jane.
Ms. Wohlmuth married Mr. Teacher in 1991. He died in 2014. She is survived by one brother, Gary Joslow; one sister, Beth Josolowitz; a daughter-in-law, Rachael Teacher; and a step-grandson.
The success of “Sisters” allowed Ms. Saline and Ms. Wohlmuth to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show and other talk shows. Ms Wohlmuth said one of the most gratifying aspects of the book’s success was what she and Ms Saline had heard from readers.
“The sisters give the book to each other like an olive branch,” Ms. Wohlmuth told Jewish Exponent. “And the letters we received — thank-you letters that say, ‘The book reunited me with my sister again. “”