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Joseph Nettis, photographer who traveled the world

Joseph Nettis, 83, of Spring Garden, who celebrated people in his hometown and all over the world in his photos, died Wednesday, Nov. 2, at Hahnemann University Hospital from complications of a fall at home.

Joseph Nettis
Joseph NettisRead more

Joseph Nettis, 83, of Spring Garden, who celebrated people in his hometown and all over the world in his photos, died Wednesday, Nov. 2, at Hahnemann University Hospital from complications of a fall at home.

Mr. Nettis discovered the magic of creating photographic images when he was 12 and visited a friend who had a darkroom in his home in West Philadelphia. The next day, he purchased $2 worth of equipment for his own darkroom.

Mr. Nettis graduated from Overbrook High School, where he was the photographer for the newspaper and the yearbook. In 1953, he earned a bachelor's degree from Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts.

He then embarked on a career in studio work, advertising, and photojournalism.

After National Geographic published photos from his bicycle trip through Europe in 1955, he persuaded the magazine to sponsor a round-the-world journey in the spring of 1956. What originally was to be a three-month trip lasted more than a year.

Mr. Nettis later told the Jewish Exponent that he traveled mainly by scooter, mostly sleeping in people's homes, though he slept in a monastery and in a jail in Japan.

After completing his work for National Geographic, he struck out across Spain, where he shot 10,000 photos for a book he eventually published, A Spanish Summer.

He sold his transistor radio and binoculars for film and arrived back in the United States with 50 cents in his pocket, he told The Inquirer in 1960.

Shooting with a 35mm camera - "because it's small and doesn't get in the way" - Mr. Nettis focused most often on people.

"I'm fascinated by the infinite variety in people," he told the Jewish Exponent in 1961. "I'm intrigued by what I see and want to tell others."

In Spain, he sailed with a fishing crew in Combarro, threshed wheat in Lo Colilla, and took part in a festival in Utrera.

For his 1963 book, Man and His Religions, Mr. Nettis gleaned photos he had taken from around the world of religious ceremonies involving birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. In 1964, he published Philadelphia Discovered, a pictorial tribute to his hometown.

Mr. Nettis, who took creative-writing courses at Temple University and at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the text for his books. His 2001 novel, Sergio's Odyssey, follows the journey of a teenager as he encounters Center City characters, including a policeman, a fortune-teller, protest marchers, and a prostitute and her pimp.

His photographs ran in numerous magazines. After Adlai E. Stevenson, the two-time presidential candidate who was then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, died in July 1965, Mr. Nettis' portrait of Stevenson appeared on the cover of Life magazine.

Mr. Nettis' color photo of a sculler in front of the Fairmount Water Works, with the Art Museum, the PSFS Building, and City Hall in the background, appeared in the New York Times Magazine in June 1984 as part of an advertisement for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He told an Inquirer reporter that he took the shot using a telephoto lens from the west bank of the Schuylkill where the river bends.

When his photos were exhibited in a show, "The Discriminating Lens," at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts in 1999, Inquirer critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote: "Joseph Nettis, a polished documentary photographer . . . gives us upbeat 'Family of Man' images from all over the world."

At the time of his death, Mr. Nettis had just purchased paper and ink cartridges to produce his annual New Year's card. "They were always hilarious," his wife, Elaine Nettis, said. One year, she said, he Photoshopped exotic animals in amusing poses in front of the Art Museum.

Mr. Nettis and his wife met at a neighborhood Valentine's Day party and married in 1980.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a stepdaughter, Dawn Hartman; a sister; and a brother.

A life celebration will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 8, at the University of the Arts, Broad and Pine Streets.