Michael H. Viola, 91, retired Inquirer photographer

Philadelphia Inquirer photojournalist Michael Viola captured actor Sylvester Stallone walking near Juniper St. near Chestnut during the filming of Rocky 2 in 1978.

Michael H. Viola, 91, of Manayunk, a retired Inquirer photographer who sought perfection in the images he captured, died Tuesday, Sept. 12, of cancer at his home.

Mr. Viola joined the newspaper in 1948 and worked until his retirement in October 1988. He loved the job, his family said.

“Mike was a great photographer and a great colleague,” said William K. Marimow, Philadelphia Media Network’s editor-at-large. “He radiated energy, competence, a quiet confidence, and good cheer. Working with him as a young, inexperienced reporter, I always knew that he would help me find the story.”

Many younger Inquirer photographers tried to model themselves after Mr. Viola. Clem Murray described him as untiring on the street shooting pictures and unflagging in his attempts to develop the best possible images once back in the newspaper’s darkroom.

Camera icon Michael Viola
Spending about 40 minutes dangling 100 feet above the East River Drive, one of three Philadelphia trash collectors wearing a safety harness attached to ropes eases his way from the truck as fire rescue personnel prepare to pull him to safety in February 1982. MICHAEL VIOLA / Philadelphia Inquirer

During the early days of Mr. Viola’s career, photographs were taken with a camera, not a cellphone, and carried back to the Inquirer offices at 400 N. Broad St.

Images captured on film were developed from negatives into black-and-white prints dipped into a series of wet chemical baths. Captions were written on a typewriter, sometimes with just two fingers.

“Mike would spend so much time working an image in the enlarger and the chemicals, easily going through eight to 10 sheets of paper per image,” Murray said.

“Being a young photographer, I asked him why he spent so much time printing.  His response: ‘Because, Kid, a million people are going to read the paper tomorrow morning, see my photo with my name underneath it, and I want it to be perfect.’ ”

“It’s a lesson that has stayed with me for my 35 years at the Inquirer,” Murray said.

Photography director Michael Mercanti said that as a young newspaper photographer, he was a huge fan of Mr. Viola’s.

“His photographs were interesting, smartly composed with an almost tangible energy and enthusiasm to them,” Mercanti said. “Before you read the credit, you knew it was Mike’s photo.”

Tom Gralish, an Inquirer photographer whose pictures of homeless people on Philadelphia’s streets won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, three years after he joined the paper, had been impressed by Mr. Viola’s work from the time he first interviewed for a job.

“When I was hired, I was excited to meet Michael,” Gralish said, “and thrilled to find out he was not a hot-shot prize-winning photographer right out of one of the country’s top photo journalism schools, but a guy who had been carrying his camera around the streets of this city already for decades, because he just loved taking pictures. And meeting people. And representing the profession he loved.”

Inquirer photographer Ed Hille recalled Mr. Viola as “always the consummate ‘gentle man’; he never had a bad thing to say about anyone.”

Short in stature with a big heart, Mr. Viola was fun to be around and made the newsroom a lively place to work, Hille said. Long after it was no longer the fashion, Mr. Viola came to work each day in a freshly pressed shirt and tie under a signature sweater vest or suit. He favored a tan trench coat, which flapped around his heels when he ran.

He could be blunt and streetwise, enjoying his role as the photo department’s storyteller, Hille said.

“Let me tell you something, Pal,” his stories would begin. And he would describe what it was like to have met singer Frank Sinatra, Mayor Frank Rizzo, or Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s 1979 visit to Philadelphia.

Mr. Viola did not give ground in an argument, Murray said. On one occasion, when MOVE, the West Philadelphia back-to-nature group, was protesting at City Hall, Mr. Viola and several others were dispatched.

“One of the other photographers noticed Mike cornered by one of the MOVE sympathizers who was jawing at him pretty good. Mike stood his ground over the much taller man, and gave it right back,” Murray said.

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Viola attended school in Bryan, Texas. He learned photography while serving in the Navy.

Mr. Viola adored his wife, Catherine Monteleone Viola. He beamed over their children’s accomplishments, said his daughter Vivian Kurcik.

Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Andre Viola; a daughter, Tina Alessi; four grandchildren; and a sister. Another grandchild and sister died earlier.

A 9:30 a.m. viewing Friday, Sept. 15, will be followed by an 11 a.m. funeral Mass at St. John the Baptist Church, 146 Rector St., Philadelphia. Burial is in Calvary Cemetery, Conshohocken.

Memorial donations may be made to the Pennsylvania SPCA, 350 E. Erie Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19134.