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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Duprey

Anniversary Date Nights, Personal Projects, & Hidden Mothers with Maurene Cooper of Vanity Tintype | Philadelphia, PA


Hey, I get annoyed by those cooking blogs

where you have to scroll endlessly to get down to the recipe too!

If you are interested in skipping to meat of Maurene's interview, you may do so HERE.

No offense taken!







"Would you like to sit for a portrait? You all have freckles."



Over the past year, I have visited Maurene Cooper's Philadelphia photography studio, Vanity Tintype, several times to sit for portraits. Maurene specializes in wet plate collodion photography, a 19th Century process that develops silver nitrate into a black and white image on a tin plate. Sitting for her, fires me up with artistic inspiration and a greater understanding and appreciation of historic photographic processes. The tintype photographs she has made of my family are some of my most cherished possessions. They are objects of timeless beauty and I love to look at them. I display our portraits proudly in my home and plan to pass them down as heirlooms to my children some day. I know that I will continue to return to her studio to have other family milestones and memories documented in this unique and artful way.


This new-found interest in wet plate photography started last March while planning a wedding anniversary date night.

Tin Anniversary Tin Type of a couple taken at Maureen Cooper's Tin Type Studio in Philadelphia.
My favorite image of my husband and I taken at our anniversary tin type photo session with Maureen Cooper of Vanity Tin Tintype in Philadelphia.

Nearly 14 years ago, my husband, Luis, and I married each other in a simple court house ceremony. My father had the good sense to leave his shot gun at home; my mother insisted I wear a white dress; and Luis's granny slipped her own engagement ring on my finger. When we sealed our vows with a nervous peck, my mom-mom mumbled "that was not a kiss" loud enough for the whole room to hear. Our wedding was followed by a single honeymoon night at a Bed and Breakfast. The next day, I retuned alone to college to finish out the last semester of my Sophomore year; and my new husband left for Air Force Basic Training, where he spent the next 6 months becoming an Airman. Our first baby was born shortly after his return from Texas.


Needless to say, my husband and I have been in the thick of it ever since.



Actual Photo from our wedding day, circa 2011.

The only photos I have from our wedding day were taken on a single roll of black and white film--used as credit for an assignment in my younger sister's high school dark room photography class.


While I have taken many thousands of photographs of my children over the years, I have scant few pictures of Luis and I together as a couple. When our anniversary came around, I wanted nothing more than to have couple's portraits taken.


Anniversary tintype of a couple taken at Maureen Cooper's tin type studio, Vanity Tin Type, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I had been looking into tintype photography for a while, and was so happy when I found Vanity Tintype, the only woman owned wet plate studio in Philly.


Maurene Cooper photographs many anniversaries in her Fishtown studio, most often 10th anniversaries as "tin" is the traditional gift-- and she helpfully shared some of her favorite walkable restaurants to make our date night complete.




this preteen was not enthusiastic, as I said, but she was enriched!
My preteen was not enthusiastic, as I said, but she was enriched!

In the summer, when I saw that Maurene was looking for models with natural freckles for a personal fine art project, entitled "Winfield", I eagerly volunteered my freckle-faced daughters. My hope was for them to learn firsthand about the tintype process that had so enraptured me when their father and I had had our anniversary pictures taken. The combination of art and science makes tintype portraiture the perfect STEM outing for kids. And while I would be lying if I claimed that my daughters walked away ardent tintype enthusiasts, I can say that having their portraits taken in a historical process provided them both with a depth of perspective on the photographic legacy that I carry forward in my own work today.


Anytime we expose our 21st Century children to the slow processes of the past, especially in a hands-on way, they gain a greater appreciation for how far technology has come.



My eldest sitting for a Emily Winfield inspired portrait.
My eldest sitting for a Emily Winfield inspired portrait.

I first started taking pictures using a point and shoot film camera and had rolls and rolls of teenage shenanigans developed at the pharmacy. Those days are long gone and even though my kids are allowed to take photographs under supervision with my Digital SLR, the camera that they are most familiar with and comfortable shooting is the one in my phone. The immediacy of a cell phone image compared to the many steps, caustic chemicals, time, and skill involved in wet plate photography is amazing progress as far as technology goes. Anyone these days can be a photographer! I would argue however, that even if everyone is walking around with a camera in their pocket, there still is value in preserving historical methods of portraiture. I love that Maurene celebrates history and tradition in a fresh and modern way through her work and commitment to a process that isn't fast and isn't easy but is proven to produce beautiful, timeless, and tangible results.



My youngest daughter sitting for a portrait at Vanity Tin Type historical portrait studio.

The Modern Hidden Mother



While modern tintype studios, like Maurene's, typically use bright strobe lights to account for the low light sensitivity of collodion; back in the 19th Century, tintypes relied solely on natural light and had average exposure lengths of up to a minute or more. This meant that to photograph children, who are by nature squirmy, mothers would have to sit with their child for the portrait to keep them calm and still. The hidden mother-- or a mother shrouded while holding her child for the camera, or obscured from view, or visible only with a steadying hand-- was a common theme in Victorian portraits.


Here the top of a mother's head and her plaid skirt is visible in the photograph. Her child seems very content. A tin type hidden mother portrait.
Here the top of a mother's head and her plaid skirt is visible in the photograph. Her child seems very content.

Back when I worked at an Auction house, photographing estate collections for online sales, many examples of hidden mothers came through our doors. The strange eeriness always fascinated me and I would often sit with these photographs for a while, wondering about what lengths a mother will go to have her child photographed.


Other questions these hidden mother brought to mind were: What of the mother? Why was a photograph of the woman under the blanket not of value? Did she opt out of the portrait or was it the photographer's idea? Why couldn't she have been photographed simply holding her child?


Motherhood portraiture is something that I personally feel very passionate about and the subject of mother and child is a one that I return to again and again in my personal work as an artist.


So let me ask the mothers: Where are YOU in your camera roll?


A colorized Victorian example of "hidden mother". This mother keeps her baby comfortable and still on her lap, under a damask shroud.
A colorized Victorian example of "hidden mother". This mother keeps her baby comfortable and still on her lap, under a damask shroud.

As mothers, we are often the one behind the lens, we have countless photographs of our children-- and our partners with our children-- but we ourselves are grossly under represented in our family albums and camera roll. Myself included! Mothers deserve candid photos with their children so they can see themselves in their role as mother-- see that they are doing alright. They deserve photos of themselves alone so that they can see themselves as a human being. Our children deserve a tangible memory of how much we loved them to look back on when we are gone-- a record of us in their lives.


The concept of the hidden mother resonates with me on a deep level. To me, the analogy reads that to be a good, loving mother, as viewed by society, we must sacrifice all sense of self-- our children come first until we fade away completely.


I became a mother so young in life that my sense of self wasn't fully formed-- and now in my early thirties, I am still trying to solidify it. When I was a child, my mother would tell me that her purpose in life was to be my mother. Now that I am a mother myself, I struggle with feeling unfulfilled in that role. I want more than to be my child's mother-- I also want to be myself. Who ever that may be. I approached Maurene with a concept in which the shadow of motherhood discontent is visible in the portrait.



A very dusty scan of a photograph taken of a very tiny Lenore and a very depressed me.

There are a few pictures I have of me and my eldest, taken when she was a baby and I was going through a very dark time-- that shadow is there, you just can't see it. I wanted to simultaneously have a portrait made that captured the love I feel for my children, and acknowledged the complexity of motherhood.  I wanted the dark contrasted by the light-- I so pleased that Maurene was up for creative collaboration.



A modern hidden mother tin type photograph taken by Maurene Cooper of Vanity Tin Type photography studio in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

For these portraits, I didn't want to be a spooky ghost mother hiding under a blanket or reduced to just a phantom hand. With this in mind, we chose an ethereal tulle veil as a stand in for the metaphorical shadow-- the effect references Victorian hidden mothers in a way that I feel is poignant but is transparent. I also knew that I didn't want to be passive-- I wanted to nurse and kiss my babies in the portraits-- so we chose poses that reflected these wishes. The results are some of my favorite photographs to date.


I have them displayed on my dresser-- a visual reminder everyday of the bond I have with my boys and the struggles I am working to overcome to continually show up for them as the best mother I can be.



A modern hidden mother tin type photograph taken by Maurene Cooper of Vanity Tin Type photography studio in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia Pennsylvania.

~

If you are looking for night out with your partner, want to commemorate a special milestone like a graduation or a birthday, are interested in heirloom wedding portraits, or are seeking out an educational experience for your school age kids, I highly recommend Maurene at Vanity Tintype in Philadelphia.


Now enough of my gushing and onto the interview!



Maurene at work in her Philadelphia wet plate collodion studio, Vanity Tin type.
Fixer starts the developing process, turning the blue negative into the final black and white image.


I sincerly hope you enjoy our conversation from one artist mother to another. We cover the topics of 19th century photography, Maurene's path to specialize in wet plate collodion photography, her client work, and the fine art projects she is currently working on. Without further adiue, Maurene Cooper of Vanity Tin Type:



How did you come to specialize in historical processes?


I had been working in photography since High School. When I was in high school, dark room photography was still being taught. Digital photography had been invented, but most schools only had one computer-- people just weren’t doing digital. The training I had as a high school student was in the dark room. I had an innate understanding of how the photographic process worked from the technical stand point. And it was not until I went to graduate school in 2005 that I started to do things digitally. I still shot film throughout college, so I had to learn how to work really effectively in photoshop and Lightroom when i was in graduate school. The classes that I taught (right when i finished graduate school) were all basic digital. I knew that was something that was really in need professionally. I worked almost exclusively in digital for a number of years, then in 2013 I was thinking more and more about how to diversify my skill sets.



a tin type before it develops
The negative image, before the positive image developed.

I was teaching darkroom classes in every school I had been at because that had been my foundation. So despite teaching different levels of digital photography, I was always able to jump back into that because I knew how it worked and it was foundational for me. But in 2013 i started to think that it would be a kind of skill set would make me a more interesting employee at an institution-- like on the academic front. I knew that the George Eastman House in Rochester really was the premier place to go for wet plate workshops. I couldn’t get into that summer, so I did one with France Scully Osterman instead who has been working in the field for a long time. She’s in Rochester and her husband used to run the historic classes. I did that class with her and then I took a long time to learn the information. I came home and different personal things happened and it was about eight or nine months before I could learn it on my own.


For me personally, I have noticed that there is an osmosis that is necessary to learn certain processes-- I have to saturate myself with all the information and knowledge I can get my hands on, let it soak for an indeterminate amount of time, and then the understanding and skill just comes together in its own time through practical application.


the developed tin type.

There are so many variables and it took a while to figure them all out! And then I dropped it for a little bit and I learned some other 19th century practices. I learned daguerreotype which came before this and I learned dry plate gelatin which is what comes after tintype or collodion. I fell in love with tin type because it is so much about time. In making the picture in the time you are pouring the collodion on the glass, or on the tin. It has to set up a little bit-- it has be a little be sticky, but you can’t let it sit for too long. But it if it’s really humid it’s more time. I liked that time was so implicit in the process.


What I’ve loved about for the last few years is that it becomes such a collaborative process. The way I work as an artist, I have always wanted the people I was photographing to be apart of it.


Me too. I want them all in. I want it to be meaningful.


Yes, especially over the past few years when I was deciding to make this more of a business and do this more professionally where people are paying me for the work. I think it is important in terms of how people are viewing themselves and how people want to be seen that they can immediately look at what it is like and in the process of the image fixing there is this magical thing that happens where you get to see what is going on. It is so uniquely collaborative in terms of how that process unfolds. With my knowledge of how lighting works and how the process works, I can make those adjustments for clients to really depict them in the way they are interested in seeing themselves.



Maurene mixing the collodion solution in her dark room while preparing the plate.
Maurene mixing the collodion solution in her dark room while preparing the plate.


You mentioned having experience working with daguerreotype and dry plate gelatin. Why do you prefer the Tin Type over those other processes?


I love the way that the silver is rendered and the tonal value. Recently I have been a little bit of work with dry point gelatin, but I have been purchasing plates that have been made by someone else. I wanted to start photographing the Delaware River, as more of a Fine Art project. I am interested in it because it is what butts up to Fishtown, this neighborhood here. It was the center of industry-- it brought money and jobs into Philadelphia. And water in the drypoint gelatin process photographs really beautifully. It requires different kinds of chemistry and different kinds of trouble shooting so I did not want to jump into that this summer. I wanted to just be able to make photographs. There is this guy in Slovenia who makes dry plate gelatin plates on glass. They are called Zebra Plates.


Maurene Cooper in the darkroom threshold at Vanity Tintype.

I love that concept-- it so much about place. Your place, but also place collectively. In Wilmington, the Delaware River is a part of our physical and cultural landscape too.


It is also amazing that there are ready made plates on the market today! Historically, would you have been able to purchase these kinds of ready made plates if you were a hobbyist photographer in the 19th Century?


Yes, you wouldn’t purchase the collodion because it has to be made in time. This is something that could be pre-made and you were able to do that. You load them up in holders, go out and photograph, then go back into a dark room later.


I wanted to photograph the Delaware River in all these different ways, they are very long exposures like collodian but you can load them up in plate holders and time isn’t an issue. The problem with this (Zebra Plate) guy is that if you hold them up to the light and look at the sky…


(Maureen holds up an example of one of her Delaware River dry plate gelatin plates)


The speckles?


Yes, All those teeny, tiny little holes! So they are called micro bubbles and they are very common. I started making these because I wanted to make gelatin prints if I have those, I have to somehow spot them and the sky is very light and those micro bubbles are black. So I either have to scan them and spot them out and just make digital prints or I have to make my own gelatin and do it myself. I started this project, bought a bunch of boxes of these things and was like “this is great this will be a really fun thing to do this summer. I’ll get this project goingit will be excellent”.


It sounds like you are starting down a rabbit hole of learning a new skill.


Yes, making my own gelatin is another thing I have to learn how to do-- great!


What other photographic processes do you work in?


I teach as an adjunct photography professor and there is a class I teach about environmentalism and photography. In this class we make cyanotypes, anthotypes, and we do chloro prints.


(Maurene pulls out a tub with tests of the different environmental photographic processes covered in her class.)



Anthotypes are made with plant matter. You can choose turmeric, especially turmeric mixed with cinnamon, anything with a strong pigmentation.


Is this one beet juice because it’s pink?


Yes, that was that test was. This one is sumac tea. This one is cochineal (a insect used in in dye processes).




I like this hidden mother of the pregnant woman with the fabric draped over her belly.


yes, that is an example using spinach. Spinach actually works the fastest and the best. You put them in the sun, paint the emulsion and leave the piece in the sun.


What are you adding to the spinach emulsion to create the photographic print?


Nothing! Well maybe some denatured alcohol so it can evaporate You paint it in low light, let it dry, you do several coats you put it in a contact fiom with a glass on it and put it in the sun. the Spinache tends to work in a couple of hours and the beet juic ein a couple of days. And it also depends the time of year it is where the uv index is. I have students who will be like “let’s try apples!” and I’m like, “if you squeeze an apple you are going to get something clear” you need dark stuff. Dark food to get these to work.


Like carrots?


No, I don't even think carrots are dark enough.


I like these fabric prints a lot-- I am such a textile person. It would be nice to make a patchwork quilt with cyanotype prints on fabric. I am feeling very inspired.


I have been thinking about how to incorporate this into my own work, but I haven't come up with something that is consistent. Because it takes so much time and experimentation.


What are some recent personal fine art projects you have been working on?


Just in the last year, I have been working on two different fine art projects. The one that you all are participating in that is called “Winfield” which is a new interpretation of an Emily Winfield Martin illustration. I have been working with a wide range of female presenting people, all wearing variations of floral crowns with freckles. They are being photographed in a similar kind of distance. That work is about the cultural similarities of being female presenting in the world and particularly in the United States.


And another project that I am currently working on is called “The genius place”. They are landscape photographs that started out in and around historical mansions in Philadelphia looking at the gardens in relation to the architecture and then ultimately also looking at native plants in those areas. There is now a co-mingling of native and invasive species in the gardens and architecture of historic spaces in Philadelphia and more contemporary neighborhoods.





That is so cool. That project calls to mind the Marion Coffin Gardens on the Gibraltor Estate in Wilmington. The mansion is falling to ruin, but the gardens have been preserved. It has this air of beautiful decay that I think you would really appreciate.


That sounds like a great day trip!


Yes, along with Goodstay which is right down the street, the Gibraltor is one of Wilmington’s "secret gardens" that is completely free and open to the public. It’s actually one of my favorite places to let the kids loose to play hide and seek or to sit and read. It is completely enclosed by a high wall and there are all these intricate gates that you can open and close, a reflecting pool, some sculptures and fountains, and a greco-roman whimsy to duck into when it starts to rain. Definitely worth checking out in my opinion.


So your project Winfield that we participated in, all the models have very prominent freckles. Could you explain why natural freckles show up so prominently in the collodion wet plate process?


Yes, so the illustration have light freckles and I just love people with freckles, I think that they are delightly beautiful humans. It was also a way that I could. I wanted to photograph people with freckles and specifically screeningfor that both online and then when I was scouting for people in Philadelphia. I had put out a broad call on instagram which you answered, and then I started looking for people in the city as I was walking.


Would you just walk up to people and be like “I want to photograph your freckle face”?


The reverse focusview inside Maurene's land camera.

Yes, there is a woman that I photographed that I chased for a whole block and I was like, “hey, hey, can you open your instagram for a second? This is my account, I’d really like to work with you! I’m a real person, a real photographer, I swear! This is the project if you like please work with me!” and I photographed her.


So what was really important was that I find people with natural freckles. There are now a lot of people that get tattooed freckles and it’s not the same kind of pigmentation. The ink does not photograph the same as the melanin in your skin.


I did photograph someone recently who has tattooed freckles and they didn’t show up at all. There are plenty of people that I have photographed who have black ink all over thier skin and sometimes it’s hard to see it really depends on how you light it.


It is really dependant on the process and what the collodion and silver nitrate pick up.


That is so interesting. Is it because it captures a different spectrum of light?


That is exactly what it is. It picks up UV light. And there is the reflection of that off of your skin. So the Winfield project and phtoographing freckled models specifically was a way that I could illustrate something special that wet plate and collodian can do. Looking for people that have freckles and photographing them.





As part of your client work you also photograph weddings, could you describe what tintype photography might look like for a couple on their wedding day?


I have a couple of general things that I do. The way that I have it set up on my website is “Send and Inquiry” because it is not a one-size-fits-all type of service. I’m doing a wedding at the end of October, It is for a Queer Couple. They are renting a house on the Delaware for the weekend and they have 12 guests and it’s all chosen family. So how we are doing it because it is close enough to wear my mom lives, I’m going to stay with her for a night, I let them know the various options for what I have. For some weddings I have set up the camera and the lighting and set up what is essentially like a photobooth- a very high-end photobooth. And I can do 3 or 4 different groupings of people in an hour and in 4-6 hours there is X amount of tintypes that I can make and it can be the gift that your guests take with them. I can scan them and can make an album with those digital scans that the couple can then have as a memoir of their wedding day.


I can also do a few portraits before a wedding and that is what I have done most often in the past. Maybe are a couple bridal portraits, a groom portrait, and then a couple portraits of the couple together. Because the wedding that I’m photographing in October is such a small and specialized event, the Friday evening before the wedding we are going to do the studio portraits of everyone because they want their friends to have something special to take away from the wedding. And then we are going to be doing individual portraits of each of the people getting married we are going to have a couple of details and location types of shots. I went through the options with them when they reached out to me and we went back and forth about what their various interests were and how they wanted their day to look. It is a very customized process.


When I was growing up, my mother had a family tree of sorts hanging in the hallway with bridal portraits that had been passed down in my family-- both sets of my grandparents and one of my great-grandparents were even framed. I always loved looking at them and thinking about the people whose love had helped to bring me into the world. A tintype would be such a beautiful heirloom to have from a wedding. And what a beautiful gift for wedding guests to take home too!


What types of people tend to gravitate towards this type of documentation for their wedding day?


Another wedding that I have photographed was for another photographer and a history buff. This couple, the one person used to be an archival librarian, so they had worked with those kinds of materials and were really fascinated by the wet plate process. It tends to be a self-selecting group of people who seek me out. It tends to be people who have an interest in the history or historical images.


What other types of milestones or occasions would photograph really well in a tintype?


I am photographing a couple tomorrow who is coming in to celebrate their 10 Year Anniversary. Ten years is Tin. I have recently had a couple women who come in for their quarter. So women are coming in to celebrate their 25 birthdays.



What a beautiful birthday to celebrate- your youth, your vibrancy, your confidence at that age! I would have never thought to give a gift of photography to myself for my 25th birthday, but I really wish that I had.


Yes, both of those women had bought those tintypes for themselves-- It wasn't a gift that someone had given them. I thought that was really special.


What else?


Baby Stuff. I have a friend who I have been photographing her daughter every year. When I first met them, her daughter was four months old, then we did a one year picture and we just did a second birthday picture.


I have also done couples who come in after their wedding, or for a one year anniversary. I just photographed a couple who just came into town. They used to live in Philadelphia, but moved to Spain and have been there for about five years. And when they came home, the one person bought a Philadelphia tintype photo session for the other.


Can you explain what a Hidden Mother is? I see that you have some period examples here in your studio.


Tin type was most popular from 1850-1900 and at that time there was no electricity. The process is very slow and the ISO is less than 1 so you have to flood your subject with a ton of light. In the 19th Century, they would have photo studios on the attic floors of buildings with a glass ceiling so that you could have daylight come in to light your pictures however, the exposures were very long. So for very, very young children, the mother would often need to be in the picture to steady the child and to keep them still for the exposure time which could be 30 seconds to let’s say five minutes. The mom needed to be there to hold the kid and make them comfortable. And in some pictures the mom is obviously covered in a blanket and others you just see the side of the hand or something like that.


Contemporarily there are a couple of art historians who got really interested in this idea that was in vernacular photography. So they started going back into archives and looking at those images and beginning to talk about it as an idea of contemporary motherhood about the hidden nature of female domestic labor. It is a really great analogy for what we continue to see in terms of hertero-normative relationships.


I think that there is also a layer to it that is like "me as a mother with a camera, or a camera phone in my hands, I am not present in photographs with my children." And in the instance of these historical portraits, even though the mother is there, she is still absent from the photo.


I think it resonates with a lot of modern women, even though it something that is historic and that is why it is still popular idea.


And why I have started a collection of my own. This is a tintype that I picked up at an antique market in Ohio this summer. You see the mother’s hands on the side.


(Maurene hands me a small jagged edged tin type of an infant. The only evidence of their mother's hands)


She is like a pillow for her baby.


There are not hard to find, or particularly expensive. I spent $20 on one and $30 on the other. I am building out my collection of them because I think they are fascinating.


They certainly are! Thank you for sharing them with me.


I wanted to let you know that I have our Anniversary portrait framed on my dresser, which is essentially my vanity because I do my make up there, and it is my favorite thing.


Is that the really beautiful picture with the two of you going like this?


(Maurene pantomimes the pose in the tin type-- her arm in arabesque)


Sometimes, I will light a candle on my dresser-- looking at it is like watching us dance by candlelight.


It is one of my favorite pictures I’ve made. It was so much about the moment and the two of you, and what you were wearing. And that you were willing to trust me with that pose.


It is hands down my favorite picture of my husband and I and we had such a wonderful experience in your studio. It is our vanity tin type. So thank you.





How can people learn more, view your work, and connect with you?


I do the most posting and education on Instagram @vanitytintype.


There is plenty of information on my website, Vanitytintype.com

There you can view a range of different pictures that I’ve made and all my packages.


But Instagram and Tick Tock are very much the active spaces where you can see what I’m working on in real time-- those of very fluid.





Did you enjoy this interview? There are more! You can read them HERE.


Are you an artist mother? I would love to interview you about you work. You can contact me to learn more about my artist/mother interview project HERE.




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