Man found dead in Bala Cynwyd church lot identified as Philadelphia photographer

Johnathan F. Zellars was known among local artists.
Johnathan F. Zellars was known among local artists.
Posted: August 23, 2011

The body of a man found Friday outside the Church of St. Asaph in Bala Cynwyd was that of the Philadelphia photographer Johnathan F. Zellars, police, his minister, and the Montgomery County coroner said.

Zellars, 62, was found dead Friday morning by the sexton in a car parked on the grounds of the church on Conshohocken State Road in Lower Merion Township.

Montgomery County Coroner Walter I. Hofman attributed the death to natural causes, likely brought on by a medical condition.

Why Zellars was on the church grounds Thursday night wasn't clear. The Rev. Barry J. Harte, minister of the Episcopal church, said Zellars had been a member for at least three years and played an active role in church life.

"We knew Johnathan moved around to a variety of places," Harte said in an interview Monday.

"Maybe he got caught in that rainstorm Thursday, and was between places, and tried to find shelter, and he must have found the car."

When news of the death broke Friday, authorities identified the man as Johnathan F. Zellers, 62, of Philadelphia, based on identification found on his body. He was described as homeless.

That drew a quick response from Philadelphia's arts community; members feared the deceased was the photographer Johnathan Zellars.

On Monday, Lower Merion police Detective Greg Henry confirmed that it was Zellars who had been found dead.

"There were different spellings on different IDs, but I believe that the correct spelling is Zellars," Henry said. He said he was having trouble finding Zellars' kin.

Sande Webster, owner of Sande Webster Gallery on Walnut Street in Center City, said Zellars was a familiar figure at openings, always well-dressed, with his signature sunglasses and jewelry.

"I found him to be a very, very engaging person with an extensive knowledge of art, and all the things that were happening in the art world in Philadelphia," Webster said.

Richard J. Watson, exhibitions curator at the African American Museum, said his friend took fashion photos and documented life in Philadelphia. Zellars also traveled to Sweden to teach photography, Watson said.

"I appreciated his presence in the world as an artist. He related to many people and had a high level of consciousness," Watson said.

The database Lexis Nexis says Zellars had lived in the 200 block of East Cliveden Street, East Mount Airy, from 2000 on.

Zellars filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 2, 2006. Court records said his assets were liquidated and the case closed on May 8, 2007.

Harte said Zellars told him he rented a room in Mount Airy. He never mentioned trouble.

"Johnathan chose to live his life with dignity, and he did what he needed to do," said Harte. "One of the many things the church is asked to do is honor the dignity of every person."

Zellars' photographs interpreting the stations of the cross were on display from April 13 to 22. He never skipped Sunday worship, and spent time in the church office.

"I have drunk many a cup of coffee from the pot that Johnathan always had going," Harte said. "He will be deeply missed."

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or Read her blog, "MontCo Memo," at

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