‘Sisters’ photographer Sharon Wohlmuth dies at 75



Her family confirmed her death. The cause was not immediately available.

Ms. Wohlmuth spent two decades as a photojournalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covering events including the collapse of the Soviet Union, famine and war in Africa and the AIDS crisis. According to an obituary published in the Inquirer, she contributed to coverage of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 that won that newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.

She became best known, however, for the photographs that appeared in three glossy books, created with the writer Carol Saline, that epitomized their heart-tugging genre.

Saline, who had been a senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine, said in an interview that she and Ms. Wohlmuth had known each other socially and were at a brunch when they had the “aha moment” that led to “Sisters,” their first collaboration.

Each woman had one sister. Ms. Wohlmuth, who said that even from afar she could identify the sisters among women she saw on the street, felt drawn to exploring the relationship through her photography. Saline similarly wished to explore it in her writing.

The photographer and writer thus set out to make a book together, with images by Ms. Wohlmuth and text by Saline. According to Saline, they were turned away by every major publisher in the country before Running Press — a small publisher co-owned at the time by Ms. Wohlmuth’s husband, Lawrence “Larry” Teacher, and his brother Stuart “Buz” Teacher — agreed to print the book.

Ms. Wohlmuth and Saline received what the New York Times described as a “modest five-figure advance,” which they used to finance their travels across the country interviewing and photographing the three dozen sets of sisters who ultimately appeared in their book.

Some were famous, such as Coretta Scott King, the widow of the civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and her sister Edythe Scott Bagley. Others, such as the Green sisters — Bloomie, Dotty and Minnie, who never lived more than 10 minutes away from one another — were not.

In one image, Ms. Wohlmuth photographed three sisters wrapped together in a single sheet. The youngest had been diagnosed with breast cancer, prompting the other two to undergo preventive mastectomies because of a family predisposition to the disease. The sister who was sick died before the book was published.

In another image, a 7-year-old girl tends to her 11-year-old sister, who has AIDS.

Such sessions called upon all Ms. Wohlmuth’s experience as a photojournalist.

“I definitely don’t come in shooting,” she told the Jewish Exponent in 1997. “I even leave my bag in the car sometimes. … I’m always stepping back and watching for that certain moment to occur. It’s not like a formal portrait. There’s got to be something else there.”

The book, which was featured on television programs including Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, became a phenomenon. It was lodged on the New York Times bestseller list for 63 weeks. After a decade, there were more than 1 million copies in print.

Publishing houses quickly saw the commercial potential of “Sisters”-like sequels. Doubleday gave Ms. Wohlmuth and Saline what was reported to be a $2.75 million contract for their next two books.

The deal sparked what the Times called “the mother of all coffee table book battles.” In 1997, shortly before Doubleday released “Mothers & Daughters,” Running Press published “Daughters & Mothers” with text by Lauren Cowen, photographs by Jayne Wexler and a cover design strongly reminiscent of the front of “Sisters.”

Ms. Wohlmuth and Saline learned of Running Press’s upcoming release when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was to be featured with her daughter in their book, sent a fax informing them that she had been asked to appear in the other.

By then Ms. Wohlmuth’s husband had retired from Running Press, which was then operated by his brother.

“When the authors of the best-selling ‘Sisters’ choose the theme for their next portrait of tender family relationships,” a reporter for the Times cheekily wrote in a 1997 article about the episode, “this much is certain: It will not be a dreamy paean to the brother-in-law.”

Both books ultimately made their way onto the bestseller list — a reflection, perhaps, of the elemental importance of the relationship between mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers, in whatever order they are listed.

“I confess that, at first, I was prepared to be sickened by the glowing photographs and sugary stories of feminine togetherness. Motherhood is an issue that reduces sharp-witted, intelligent people to cooing cliches,” the author and journalist Katie Roiphe wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 1997. “But I have to admit that once I started reading, I could not stop.”

“You feel better as you read them,” she added. “They are as effective as a lullaby, as soothing as a teething ring. They give you the warm feeling of comfort food, like eating mashed potatoes, rice pudding and grilled cheese sandwiches. The message is that, no matter what, your mother will always be there.”

It was noted that the books Ms. Wohlmuth produced with Saline — they also included “Best Friends” in 1998 — were excellent gifts for Mother’s Day and other occasions. Givers would add their own photographs and stories to the back of the book, sometimes in what Ms. Wohlmuth described as an “olive branch” to mend a broken relationship. At least one copy, given from one sister to another, was inscribed with the wish that the recipient might see the tear stains on its pages.

Sharon Barbara Josolowitz was born in Bristol, Conn., on Sept. 25, 1946. Her father was an amateur photographer and ran a general store, and her mother was a homemaker.

Ms. Wohlmuth graduated from the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia in 1975, then joined the Inquirer.

“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,” read her obituary in the newspaper.

Ms. Wohlmuth’s marriage to Edward Wohlmuth ended in divorce. Larry Teacher died in 2014 after more than two decades of marriage.

Survivors include a stepdaughter, Rachael Teacher; a sister; a brother; and a grandson.

In an interview with CBS’s “The Early Show” in 1994, after the release of a 10th anniversary edition of “Sisters,” Ms. Wohlmuth reflected on her relationship with her own sister, eight years her junior, and how it had evolved since their schoolgirl days when Ms. Wohlmuth made her walk eight or nine steps behind her.

“I learned that I am so blessed to have a sister,” she said, “and that my interest in finding out about other women has helped me understand my relationship with my sister.”

Reached by phone, Ms. Wohlmuth’s sister, Beth Josolowitz, recalled a moment more than three decades ago that she said was etched in her memory, a scene not unlike those her sister went on to photograph.

She and Ms. Wohlmuth were at a shopping mall in Connecticut when they noticed two elderly women walking arm in arm. They looked like twins, Josolowitz said, although they might have been sisters close in age.

Josolowitz could not recall who uttered the words, whether she to Ms. Wohlmuth or Ms. Wohlmuth to her. But one of the two, gazing upon the older women, remarked with certainty that they, too, would be like that one day.



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