Updated on Oct. 2 at 7:20 p.m.
During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Joseph Labolito, a senior photographer at Temple University and lifelong Philadelphia resident, began an 18-month project of organizing, chronicling and preparing photographs to donate to the Special Collection Research Center, a depository center of Temple Libraries in the Charles Library that preserves archival materials.
For a year and a half, Labolito digitized 844 photographs and donated them to the SCRC on May 31 with hopes to enhance the information about Philadelphia’s history and materials students have access to.
While a student at the Philadelphia College of Art, now known as University of the Arts, Labolito visited the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a research facility and archive of historical documents, viewed their vintage and preserved photography of Center City. Labolito was disheartened when he didn’t see any photographs outside of Center City, including Northeast Frankford, where he grew up.
Throughout college, Labolito continued to take photos of the architecture of Philadelphia neighborhoods and residents in their daily lives to try to show non-Philadelphia natives what the city looks like, he said.
“When I was taking these pictures, somewhere in the back of my head, that’s what I was thinking,” Labolito said. “Someday, these pictures are going to have some value because of what I shot and when I shot it.”
Labolito began managing commercial photography at Temple in 1996 after George Ingram, a former Temple public relations administrator, saw Labolito’s work on the wall of Willie’s Sandwiches on Ninth Street. Ingram was impressed and called Labolito that Monday to hire him.
In 2020, Labolito spoke with Margery Sly, the SCRC director, about forming the collection.
“I’ve been around Temple long enough to know, and I know enough about Margery and the Charles collection that she’s definitely going to take care of it,” Labolito said. “She was super excited to get it, it’s absolutely the right place and it comes full circle in a way.”
Labolito went through each of the portfolios and organized them from negatives to prints in preparation for the collection.
“It’s just a wonderful record of Philadelphia neighborhoods and their evolution over a few decades, and he captured moments in time that will be really valuable for research use and generally document the history of the city,” Sly said. “It’s just a really rich and beautiful collection.”
Labolito’s daughter, Gabrielle Labolito, a 2013 sports and recreation management alumna, remembers going with her dad to buy an expensive scanner to digitize his collection in 2019. Today, she wants to continue furthering his work by scanning, cataloging and assisting with her father’s website and social media.
“I’m his biggest cheerleader and his biggest fan and I believe in it, the work,” Gabrielle Labolito said. “It’s a unique human experience in Philadelphia more than the last 30 to 40 years that doesn’t exist anywhere, so I want everyone to see it and want it in the hands of people that are going to appreciate it.”
Labolito is thankful to have his decades’ worth of photographs preserved and digitized to allow Philadelphia’s history to live on, he said. This collection will allow students, scholars and the public to access the material to continue expanding on the legacy of the city.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported the number of digital scans Joseph Labolito donated and misidentified the name of the university that Labolito attended.