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Philly photographer Ricky Codio is sought after for his vulnerable, exquisite portraits

“You don’t have to be a celebrity to feel like a celebrity with me,” says Codio, founder of the Mannequin Factory photography studio in North Philly.

Photographer Ricky Codio, right, speaks to his model, Arie Wallace, left, during a photo shoot at his studio on Allegheny Avenue on June 26, 2019.
Photographer Ricky Codio, right, speaks to his model, Arie Wallace, left, during a photo shoot at his studio on Allegheny Avenue on June 26, 2019.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

To achieve the optimal crisp for her beef pastelitos, Rosalind Holley of Bridgeton, N.J., heated several cups of cooking oil until it crackled. She noticed her 3-year-old niece pacing the kitchen and went to move the saucepan out of reach but fumbled, splattering the hot oil on her own thighs. The wounds took five months to heal.

This summer, when she was ready to share her story and her scars, she arranged a photoshoot with Philadelphia fashion photographer Ricky Codio. Holley, a vision in a black, voluminous gown with lantern sleeves, revealed the scars that her second- and third-degree burns had left behind.

“Nobody knew what happened to me before this photo shoot,” Holley said. “That day was very big and heavy on me because I didn’t know what people would think. I was amazed at my own strength.” And she credits Codio for encouraging her to be vulnerable during the shoot.

“We all have certain things about ourselves that we’re not a fan of,” Codio, 30, said. “It’s good for us to get those moments where we feel great and all eyes are on you. You don’t have to be a celebrity to feel like a celebrity with me.”

The Mannequin Factory

In the past decade Codio, who moved from Haiti to Philadelphia when he was 9, has become one of the region’s most sought-after fashion photographers, working with the likes of Nafessa Williams of CW’s Black Lightning and the fashion-designing duo Jeantrix.

In 2015, he was a lighting technician on the set of the Philly-shot film Creed. He used his earnings from the film job to open a photography studio that year in North Philadelphia, the Mannequin Factory.

Codio often collaborates with noted makeup artist Jacen Bowman. The two have worked together since 2011 and have become known for dramatic, yet intimate shoots featuring models covered in glitter or glow-in-the-dark body paint or adorned with 10-foot-tall wings or fashioned in avant-garde ensembles.

Bowman said the ideas start off simple, but “take on a life of their own. There’s always an amazing synergy, and it has developed into an amazing brotherhood.”

Codio and Bowman teamed up for a 2016 maternity photo shoot with Tara Wallace, a cast member of VH1′s Love & Hip Hop: New York. The photo went viral after Wallace posted it on Instagram, and they received a slew of requests for maternity shoots, now one of Codio’s signatures.

“I love showcasing that beauty and adding a little fashion to it,” he said.

Screenwriter to photographer

Codio had been an aspiring screenwriter before he chanced into a photography career.

In 2009, he had completed a couple of scripts for a project and was eager to film. One of his friends had just graduated with a film degree from the Art Institute of Philadelphia and was hosting an event in Fishtown where other filmmakers would be in attendance.

Because Codio was under 21, at his friend’s advice, “I borrowed a camera, put it around my neck, and walked right past the bouncer,” who assumed Codio was a credentialed photographer. “When I got in, it was more like a party and since I had a camera, I just started clicking away,” Codio said.

Later that night he uploaded the pictures to Facebook. By the time he woke up the next day, several folks had tagged themselves, commented, liked, and shared the photos with their friends. Codio snuck into parties this way for months, making a name for himself as an event photographer.

“My name just started to get out there, then I got my first solo shoot,” he said. Today he averages up to 50 shoots a month.

One last time

Five years ago, Shamaya Oberlton of West Oak Lane reached out to Bowman about setting up a photo shoot for her mother, Elvita Williams, who was battling pancreatic cancer. Because of considerable weight loss and thinning hair due to chemotherapy, Williams “didn’t feel beautiful anymore,” Oberlton said. “I wanted her to feel beautiful at least one last time before she transitioned.”

The price for a photo shoot at the Mannequin Factory usually starts around $600 but Bowman and Codio agreed to work with Oberlton and Williams for free.

At the beginning of the shoot, Williams wore a wig, but later, she felt comfortable enough with Bowman and Codio to remove it. During that time, Williams would rarely allow herself to be seen without a head covering. “She never posted any pictures without her wig and when people would come to the house, she would hurry up and put it on because she was ashamed of how she looked,” Oberlton said.

Williams’ bald head glistened underneath the studio lighting, and the two women posed wearing white tank tops, light-washed jeans, and pink boxing gloves. Williams wept as she held her daughter. “She knew this was [one of] our final moments.”

When the photos were published, “she harassed me for the whole day to go to Walgreens to make copies,” Oberlton said. “She had me drive around so that she could give pictures to everybody. I felt like she finally got a chance to see how beautiful she looked without hair.”

Two months after her photo shoot at the Mannequin Factory, Williams died. She was 44 years old.