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City Folk

Photographic Memory

Tom Scilipoti has been documenting Baltimore for over 50 years

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano


The name Mitchell Rozanski, a homegrown bishop with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, came up the other day at Vikki’s lunch counter in Broadway Market.

A gray-haired man of 83, chatting with another old-timer from the neighborhood, turned from his bacon and eggs and said, “I took his First Communion picture, and I used to cut his hair when he was a baby.”

The barber who went from asking people how much they wanted off the top to telling them to smile is Thomas Carmel Scilipoti, happily eating his favorite breakfast years after a quadruple bypass. If you were a Catholic school kid in Southeast Baltimore in the late 1950s and 1960s—or a blushing bride walking down the aisle at Holy Rosary on Chester Street—there’s a good chance he took your picture too.

“Mister Tom had the patience of a saint in the art of photography and barbering,” says Rozanski, who grew up eight doors down from Scilipoti, who lived in the 1900 block of Bank Street, just off of Wolfe. “Always a gentleman and a fixture of East Baltimore.”

(In one of those “only in Baltimore” moments, Rozanski’s secretary, after being told why a reporter was calling, says: “Tom took my wedding pictures at St. Patrick’s on Broadway in 1959.”)

Scilipoti cut hair in the front room of a three-story rowhouse which he bought in 1954 for about $7,500, the home where he raised his family. Not long ago, a house on the block went for more than $300,000. He had a spinning barber pole out front and didn’t need special zoning to do business.

“I charged a little higher for my haircuts,” he recalls. “A dollar twenty-five!”

But the shutterbug already had its pincers in Scilipoti, who grew up above his father’s barbershop—Mario’s—at the corner of High Street and East Pratt, a building torn down in the early 1950s for the Flag House Courts housing project.

Long before he unplugged the barber pole for good, in 1966, Scilipoti was taking his camera everywhere, capturing images of a once-thriving and long-gone manufacturing city: coal-fired tugboats, burly stevedores unloading bananas on Pratt Street, the mammoth breweries on O’Donnell Street, and African-American road crews.

“Tom was one of the first white photographers to take pictures of black people going about their daily business,” says Jacqueline Watts, former editor of The Baltimore Guide newspaper, which has been publishing Scilipoti’s photos—for free—for over 60 years.

“He gave us the photos for free to get publicity for his business,” says Watts. “I always tried to make the credit line as big as I could.”

Scilipoti wandered the city, especially his native eastside, with a classic Graflex—the 4x5 Speed Graphic model favored by newspaper and magazine photographers in the days of popping flashbulbs.

Weegee used a Speed Graphic on the murderous streets of New York. The young Kubrick used a Speed Graphic before he made moving pictures.

And Tom Scilipoti, a child clarinetist who walked away from a Calvert Hall music scholarship to become a barber and then traded his clippers for camera, used a Speed Graphic.

With it, he caught Rocky Marciano being mobbed as he left Maria’s 300 Restaurant at Fawn and Albemarle streets; an 18-alarm fire that began in the old lumberyards on Boston Street; and the mid-1950s New York Yankees in their street clothes—a boyish Mickey Mantle front and center—at the old Roma restaurant, also on Fawn Street.

“Beautiful work. I can see [my father’s] influence in every photo of his that I have seen,” says Jennifer Bodine, whose new book of A. Aubrey Bodine photographs is called Bodine’s Industry: The Dignity of Work.

Because he was a friend and neighbor, not a pushy and obnoxious newsman but a familiar face known as “Mozzie,” Scilipoti would get tips when big shots were around the neighborhood from people like “Miss Emma” Maccioca, who owned Roma.

“That’s how I knew Mantle and Whitey Ford and the Yankees were there—Miss Emma gimme a call,” says Scilipoti, whose formal portrait business—the Thomas Studio—was at 1804 Eastern Ave.

“I’m not making a living at it anymore,” says Scilpoti, a widower since the 2004 death of his wife of 54 years, the former Concetta Fedeli. He’s a grandfather who enjoys day trips to the Eastern Shore and a nice meal with his “lady friend.”

He still takes his camera everywhere he goes, having switched to digital not long after the technology came out. He turned his old darkroom on the third floor into a place to keep the trains he has collected since childhood, blaming a battle with bladder cancer on the photography chemicals he inhaled for years. He uses a computer to print and catalog his work.

“Take a look at my new stuff,” he says proudly, pointing to a wall lined with photographs signed Thomas C. Scilipoti, blue plastic storage tubs on the floor filled with photos from a recent exhibit at the Little Italy St. Gabriel Festival.

The pictures are different now.

The new work is heavy not on cityscapes but landscapes and nature (Smith Island); and animals (birds and cats); and, instead of the snow-covered rooftops of an almost Dickensian East Baltimore from 1958, a row of pastel beach houses on the Delaware Shore.

They are lovely, the sort of thing that would go for good money in a gallery in Santa Fe or West Palm Beach. But if Scilipoti once overpriced his haircuts, he regularly undersells his photography, letting gems go for $175 on the high end and sometimes as little as $20 for smaller works. Known for his generosity, he often gives photos away.

But this is Baltimore—a town where some people are more disturbed that Memorial Stadium was demolished than they are by the murder rate—and folks yearn for the old.

You look at a classic Scilipoti, an aged “hokey” man pushing his trash barrel and dragging his sweep broom in the street, and you want to be in the picture, watching the man roll by while sitting on the front steps, drinking Almond Smash from a glass bottle.

Tom Scilipoti, says his protege and old neighbor Anna Santana, is that picture.

“He likes to say that he’s still working on becoming famous,” says Santana, who thought so much of “Pop” that she asked him to walk her down the aisle when she got married. “He’s a living photographic history of Baltimore.”.

For a look at Scilipoti's work visit photos.citypaper.com

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