More Culture:

February 06, 2023

Local artist uses 19th-century photographic process to create unique tintype portraits

Montgomery County native Maurene Cooper is the only woman in Philly offering wet-collodion pictures through her Fishtown studio

Arts & Culture Photographers
maurene cooper vanity tintype black and white Courtesy of/Maurene Cooper

Montgomery County native Maurene Cooper launched Vanity Tintype in 2021, becoming the only woman in the city to produce photography using the 19th-century wet-collodion process. She now offers sessions for couples, children and individuals from her Fishtown studio.

Like many others, Maurene Cooper shifted her career focus during the pandemic, and she now creates one-of-a-kind Victoria era keepsakes

The Montgomery County artist launched Vanity Tintype in Fishtown in 2021, becoming the only woman in the city to produce photos using the 19th-century wet plate collodion process. She offers sessions for couples, children, individuals and wedding parties.

The wet-collodion process is an intricate chemical procedure invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. Tintype is a modification of the wet-plate process that became popular in the mid- to late 19th century, in which an underexposed negative was backed with black lacquered metal.

"It was the predominant image-making technology of the 19th century," Cooper said. "In general, I want to explain it as a really sexy, goth, handmade Polaroid."

maurene cooper vanity tintype indivual picMaurene Cooper/Vanity Tintype

A tintype image created by Maurene Cooper.

Vanity Tintype is the only official business in Philadelphia offering this unique style of photography. A video depicting Cooper's wet-plate process shows the steps, which involve a glass plate, a special camera, a darkroom and a variety of chemical mixtures and solutions.

"I make all of my chemistry — I buy the elements, and then I make them," Cooper said. "So I'm kind of like a chemist."

Originally from Montgomery County, Cooper spent more than a decade in Chicago where she earned her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to teach college courses in photography. Cooper's formative years between studying and teaching photography marked a transition from the darkroom photography of her teen years to the digital revolution that her students knew. 

maurene cooper vanity tintype familyMaurene Cooper/Vanity Tintype

A tintype image of a family by Maurene Cooper.

She wondered if learning more about historic techniques would help bridge the gap, so she spent some time in Rochester, New York, studying.

"I started to think more about what it would be like to have a very specific skill set that could speak even more extensively to historic processes," Cooper said. "I thought they would be really great teaching tools to have. Along the way, I fell in love with the wet plate collodion process, and I began making my own work with it."

Cooper has been working with collodion photography since 2013, extensively exhibiting her work nationally and internationally while continuing to teach at local universities. It was in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic that she decided to formalize her commercial and commissioned work under the Vanity Tintype name. She hopes to continue growing the business so it can eventually be her sole focus.

maurene cooper vanity tintype coupleMaurene Cooper/Vanity Tintype

A tintype image of a couple by Maurene Cooper.

The company currently offers offers a range of tintype packages in Cooper's studio at 2316 Coral Street, where clients can choose to be photographed against a minimal backdrop or in a modernized Victorian parlor setting. Cooper also offers boudoir photoshoots and on-location services, including weddings. 

Cooper describes the "magical" moment during shoots where the subject sees their image take shape for the first time.

"There's a really cool part of the process where the image fixes, and it happens in front of people," she said. "The client sees it go from being just a blue image to a black-and-white image and it becomes a positive. It's just, almost transcendent ... People are really excited about them." 

maurene cooper vanity tintype dogMaurene Cooper/Vanity Tintype

A tintype image by Maurene Cooper featuring a furry friend.

Those interested in sitting for tintype portraits can book appointments online, which start at $185 for an hour-and-15-minute mini studio session. 

Vanity Tintype is also hosting two local Valentine's Day themed pop-up events this weekend. On Friday, Feb. 10, Cooper will be offering couples' shoots at the BOK Building at 1901 S. Ninth Street. On Saturday, Feb. 11, she will be in Berks County at the General Carl Spaatz National USAAF Museum in Boyertown. Reservations for the pop-up events must be made in advance.

More information can be found on the Vanity Tintype website and Instagram.

Follow Franki & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @wordsbyfranki | @thePhillyVoice
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Have a news tip? Let us know.