Awardee: Helen Maurene Cooper

Primary Artistic Medium: The work is made in the wet plate collodion process (photographic and invited in 1850), but I am interested in making large scale light projections of the sill photographs. The work is 2 D but I would like to make it media based.


My practice is motivated by personal connection and relationship building. In 2020, the challenge of balancing parenthood, professional demands, and a new creative community intensified, as it did for so many, when Covid 19 swept across the world. How does a photographer whose practice is founded on the intimacy of portraiture navigate such limitations? How does a female parent, dealing with the gendered disparity of childcare in Covid create circumstances where her practice can thrive? And my answer is this, I am making work where I live (E. Kensington), in collaboration with my neighbors from a safe social distance.

I tend to make photographs in complicated places. These portraits are no exception. E. Kensington was, at one time, Philadelphia’s industrial heart. But in the mid to late 20th century, moving factories overseas, poverty, and drugs gutted the area. We are now in the second phase of gentrification, with a massive new construction boom. My neighborhood is culturally and economically diverse, with a large percentage of LGBTQ families. And there are families in E. Kensington who have lived in the same homes for generations and transplants from other cities living in new construction.

The wet plate process and the 8×10 camera are important to my image-making during the pandemic because it demands a time commitment from a sitter and produces visible results within minutes. Most people have never seen the process and the novelty holds their attention. There is also a morbid romance that collodion brings to a portrait of a person wearing a mask in 2020. I think of the American Civil War, and the parallels of mass death and trauma that we are experiencing as a society. After all, Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner were making wet plate photographs.
Most of my sitters have seen me and the camera on their daily walks around E. Kensington. I am now 7 months into the project and I have learned that the best pictures come from familiarity. So when neighbors approach me or someone finds me on instagram, I set up a meeting for a masked walk. If all goes well, we have a second meeting and in the second meeting we schedule the shoot and discuss clothing and poses. I also have several chances to observe the individual or couple. My desire is to create truly authentic portraits that are reflective of the intimacy between subjects and myself. The work will continue until there is no longer a pandemic.
The ultimate goal with “People of the Pandemic” is a monograph and gallery exhibition of the framed 8×10 plates. But this winter I plan to do large- scale projections of the still photographs under and around the EL in Kensington. I am interested in creating a larger than life outdoor art experience and I need resources to manage the logistics of projectors and locations.

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