Eastern Exposure

Tom Scilipoti, 73, has been capturing East Baltimore, one picture at a time, since his youth

January 03, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Tom Scilipoti was in grade school at St. Leo's in Little Italy when his father bought him an Ansco camera and he took his first pictures.

"The school would go on field trips to Washington and what have you," he says. "And I had the camera and I would snap some shots. I liked the idea of getting the photos developed and everybody was anxious to see what you got."

He liked the attention and that tension between the shot and the print. He still does.

He's 73 now and he's still taking pictures. He's taken photographs from the Amish country of Pennsylvania to the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore. But he's made an arc from Little Italy to Fells Point to Highlandtown his photographic heartland.

He was born in Little Italy at 902 E. Pratt St., in a house that was leveled years ago for the Flag House housing project (which has since been demolished also). The farthest he's ever lived from his birthplace is the 3200 block of Fairmount Ave. - a couple miles away. He's lived for 48 years in the 1900 block of E. Bank St., about a dozen blocks away from where he was born. He's probably made more pictures in these neighborhoods than any other single photographer.

A selection of his pictures is now on display at Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point. And he's already preparing for his annual exhibition in St. Leo's Church during the St. Anthony's Festival in June.

He's won awards from the Baltimore Camera Club, Saga magazine and The Sun. And his pictures have appeared regularly in the East Baltimore Guide for more than 50 years.

"I'm still taking [pictures for] them," he says, laughing. "I'm on my own. What I like, I submit. If they like it, they use it.

"My first was published in 1950," he says. "I was a teen-ager. It was Mrs. D'Alesandro surrounded by a lot of Italian people."

Annunciata D'Alesandro was, of course, the wife of Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr., Baltimore's mayor from 1947 to 1959. Scilipoti has taken pictures of a couple of generations of D'Alesandros.

"I have one I really like of Nancy Pelosi," he says. Pelosi, the D'Alesandros' daughter, is a member of Congress from California and the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. She was a young girl awaiting election results with her parents in the picture he likes. "I did her wedding," he says.

He made pictures of her brother, "Young Tommy," too, before his wedding in 1952 and again when he became mayor in the late 1960s.

Scilipoti still has those pictures and most of those he took for the Guide over the years. He's mounted many in his scrapbooks along with yellowed clippings. His Guide photos and the pictures he made in his studio are a kind of folk history of his slice of East Baltimore.

He's photographed weddings and babies and graduations and spaghetti dinners and championship sports teams and lodges and social clubs and service clubs and political clubs and soldiers and sailors and Marines and altar boys at St. Leo's assembled in their elaborate cassocks and surplices.

His subjects often are homey, but his photography is by no means unsophisticated. His best photos are subtle and artful.

"Yousuf Karsh is my idol," he says, showing a Karsh-like color portrait he made of Dantini, the celebrated Baltimore magician and all-around character. "And Bodine is my pictorial idol."

Karsh, an Armenian-Canadian photographer, created definitive portraits of Sir Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and Albert Einstein. A. Aubrey Bodine, the longtime Sun photographer, helped define the look of the Maryland landscape and the Chesapeake Bay for his generation. Scilipoti met Bodine at the Baltimore Camera Club.

"Mr. Bodine," he says, "would say go around and pick a subject. And, if you don't like the atmosphere at that time, make a note of it and go back and pick the atmosphere you like. And that's what I did."

"You make notes down of different scenes you like. It might not be the right time or day. But you have a mental thing of it."

He did his picture of rowboats at the old Druid Hill Park Lake like that. He knew the shot was there but waited for a night with a full moon and a streetlight shining through the trees, reflecting off the water. It won a first prize at the Baltimore Camera Club in 1954.

Scilipoti really got serious about photography when he took classes in darkroom technique with a priest named Joseph Mungari, who was teaching at the St. Leo's Catholic Youth Organization.

He looks at an old photo of himself with the priest outside St. Leo's. He was about 19, Father Joe doesn't look a whole lot older. "It's good to be young," he says, laughing.

He had just finished barber school. His father, Mario, had been a barber with a shop at Pratt and High streets. Scilipoti would eventually open his own shop at his home on Bank Street. He always kept his camera at hand while cutting hair.

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