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Sharon J. Wohlmuth, award-winning Inquirer photographer and best-selling author, dies at 75

As talented and creative as she was at work, Ms. Wohlmuth was admired just as much for her compassion, intelligence, and energy. "She was light-hearted, sweet and kind," a friend said.

Ms. Wohlmuth poses at the Old City Jewish Art Center in 2009 with images of her show "Closed on Saturday," documenting Brooklyn Lubavitchers in the 1970s.
Ms. Wohlmuth poses at the Old City Jewish Art Center in 2009 with images of her show "Closed on Saturday," documenting Brooklyn Lubavitchers in the 1970s.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

Sharon J. Wohlmuth, 75, a free-spirited, bighearted photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize and countless other awards at The Inquirer and then copublished a best-selling series of poignant photo-essay books, died Sunday, Feb. 13, of an undisclosed cause at her home on Rittenhouse Square.

Using her instinctively sharp eye to spot striking images, a genuine interest in people, an extra dose of chutzpah, and an ever-present camera, Ms. Wohlmuth fashioned a career in photojournalism at The Inquirer that spanned 20 years and led her to assignments around the world.

From Philadelphia’s gilded City Hall offices to the war-torn plains of Somalia to the chaotic streets of the collapsing Soviet Union — anywhere there was action, beauty, or human drama — Ms. Wohlmuth sent back photos that readers remember today.

She was part of The Inquirer team that won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and her wide array of pictures — Holocaust survivors, cowboys in Oklahoma, mobsters on trial, everyday life in Philadelphia, the wonders of nature and animals, and other subjects — earned her adoring respect from readers and peers, and awards from a half-dozen journalism organizations.

“She knew how to capture a moment,” said former Inquirer photographer Ron Tarver. “Somehow she could infuse things into her pictures that you can’t teach.”

An Inquirer reader commented in 1983 about a story on the Holocaust, writing, “Sharon Wohlmuth’s photographs tore at my soul.”

In 1976, Ms. Wohlmuth became one of the celebrated self-described Photo Girls, four women who were the first female photographers at The Inquirer and Philadelphia Bulletin. Along with The Inquirer’s Sara Krulwich and Vicki Valerio and the Bulletin’s Barbara Pachter, Ms. Wohlmuth formed a group of trailblazers who remained friends and reunited often over the years.

“Sharon had great talent in capturing moments that most people never saw,” Valerio said. “Her vision was so different and so cerebral. She was a genius at shooting people in ways they or you never expected.”

In 1994, Ms. Wohlmuth collaborated with writer Carol Saline on a photo-essay book called Sisters that became a surprise best-seller, and she appeared on TV shows and at book signings around the country. She and Saline went on to copublish Mothers and Daughters in 1997 and Best Friends in 1998, and her photos from the books were featured on TV specials, calendars, and other items. She later published other books, and her photographs appeared in many national publications.

Reviewer Judy Bass wrote in The Inquirer in 1998 that “Wohlmuth’s casually posed pictures truly transmit the depth of all these relationships.”

Born Sharon Josolowitz on Sept. 25, 1946, in Bristol, Conn., Ms. Wohlmuth was a popular student in high school but not much interested in academics, and one guidance counselor told her she would likely make a fine housewife and mother. She spent some time at a junior college after graduation but left after failing to master shorthand to take a job with a travel agency.

She met Ed Wohlmuth at a travel agents convention in Hartford, and they married in 1966. His family owned a travel agency in Philadelphia, so they headed south and lived together until they divorced in 1974. He died earlier.

Ms. Wohlmuth, whose father was an avid amateur photographer, enrolled at the Moore College of Art and Design in 1972 and immersed herself in photography. She had developed such an impressive portfolio just a few months after she graduated that photo editor Gary Haynes offered her a job at The Inquirer.

“She was so excited when she got that job,” said her brother, Gary Joslow. “I think it was her personality that played a big part in that.”

“She would not be intimidated by anybody,” said Clem Murray, a former Inquirer photographer and director of photography. “She could talk her way into any situation and make people feel comfortable.”

Ms. Wohlmuth married Larry Teacher, a publisher, painter, and entrepreneur, in 1991, and they lived on Rittenhouse Square until his death in 2014.

In 2012, Ms. Wohlmuth told ADDitude Magazine that she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in 1994. She responded by taking medication and speaking out to others about the condition.

“It gave me a certain spontaneity, a sense of adventure and danger,” she told the magazine. “On my tombstone it will say, ‘Wait, I’m not ready; I’m still organizing.’”

“She just loved photography and people.”

Gary Joslow, Ms. Wolhmuth's brother

She taught photojournalism classes at Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts, and was known at The Inquirer for having one of the messiest desks in the building. She didn’t like to photograph sports and, when assigned to a high school basketball game, captioned one action photo with the sentence “Man shoots basketball.”

Away from work, Ms. Wohlmuth liked to ski and unwind in Key West, Fla., and the Jersey Shore. She looked after her ailing mother, enjoyed taking other family members on day trips to New York, and doted on her cats.

“If there was an Inquirer Hall of Fame,” a former staff photographer wrote in a tribute, “Sharon would be a first ballot, unanimous inductee.”

In addition to her brother, Ms. Wohlmuth is survived by her sister, Beth, and other relatives.

Services were Thursday, Feb.17.