• Cooking the Emulsion – Olga Chemokhud Doty

    Date posted: June 19, 2006 Author: jolanta

    Cooking the Emulsion

    Olga Chemokhud Doty


    In an
    effort to learn more about the various Polaroid image transfer methods, I
    visited the Polaroid corporation site. Until recently, they sponsored artists
    who were experimenting with instant print techniques and the cameras that
    produced them. Now the company has tightened its belt and is not as generous to
    artists. However, the site still gives useful information on transfer
    techniques, in addition to showing the work of various artists who work in this
    medium and an overview of the cameras and papers available for the process.


    In 1948,
    Ansel Adams became a consultant to Edwin H. Land, inventor of the Polaroid
    instant photography system. He commented on the great potential of this
    process, which brings instant gratification at the touch of a button without
    the use of the dark room or complex chemical procedures. The print positive
    comes in double layered parts, which separate after being exposed in the
    camera. For the bottom part correctly to develop, the top layer is not
    separated right away. If the layers are separated too quickly, the bottom
    (emulsion) part of the print looses some color and contrast but it’s afterimage
    is left on the top part, which consists of chemical dyes. The chemicals from
    the top part of the print can be transferred dry onto a wet receptor, like
    watercolor paper or cloth. Legend has it that a technician in the Polaroid lab
    once left the disposed top part upside-down on a wet table and the dye with the
    after-image registered on the table. The emulsion layer can be first boiled,
    soaked in cold water, and then lifted off its base onto the receptive surface.
    The membrane-like thinness of the emulsion layer results in creases and tears
    that happen in the process.


    One must
    be carefully not to assume there is only one type of use for Polaroid
    processing. The best material found on the web for explaining the distinctions
    between direct Polaroid prints, dye transfers, and emulsion transfers is “Polaroid
    image transfers – tools and techniques” by Holly F. Dupre. However, while the
    text is comprehensive, I was still left with a lot of questions. Fortunately
    enough, I was able to visit the Chelsea studio of A.J. Nadel, an artist who
    uses different methods of print transfers and demonstrated the potential of
    working with each method. He works from a slide, which a 20 X 24 transfer
    camera re-shoots onto Polaroid paper. He normally does two takes. One take is
    peeled apart right away so that the top, chemically infused part creates a dye
    print. The bottom emulsion print loses some of its color and focus, but still
    is good for emulsion transfer. If you take the top part and rub it off onto the
    moistened receptor, the dyes and chemicals will transfer with resulting image
    slightly out of focus. The second take is left to fully develop, leaving just
    the bottom part with emulsion but with good focus and high color contrast.
    Nadel explained that he only started using Polaroid transfers two years ago,
    but the process has enabled him to reflect and give shape to his work as he
    moves the emulsion from the Polaroid paper onto his drawings, which are done
    mostly on the cold-press watercolor paper (Arches 200).


    In order
    to get larger transfers without the bulky camera, regular slide film can be
    developed and then exposed onto a sheet of Polaroid paper, which comes in a
    variety of sizes. There must be total darkness between the steps of
    transferring from one positive image to another.

    A range of
    colored filters can be used in between the exposures and the image is adjusted
    again and again as each exposure may require compensation, and there is always
    a good deal of experimentation involved. Nadel, rather than manipulating color,
    leaves the cuts and rips in the emulsion layer of his figurative studies, which
    gives the viewer an uneasy feeling as in Marla #6
    style=’font-size:8.0pt;font-family:Verdana’>. While painstakingly removing the
    emulsion from the print-–which took him about half an hour rubbing it off the
    base under water–he was telling me that the process makes him feel as if he was
    working with skin. Nadel’s steady hands, from his experience as an eye surgeon,
    are important in this work. He was not in a hurry. He was trying to work slowly
    as not to disturb the positioning of the emulsion over the submerged drawing.
    The print emerged – Veronica’s Veil said the artist.


    In the
    past few decades artists working with various photographic medium have been
    creating and recreating alternative methods of producing prints. This is not to
    say that experimentation with photographic processes never took place
    previously, but to some degree altering prints had been frowned upon by
    photographers whose main goal was to create high-quality, reproducible images.
    Now, there is such a cross-pollination of mediums that for the most part it is
    impossible to categorize an artist as a photographer, or a sculptor, or a
    painter. Lucas Samaras was never trained as a photographer but he worked
    extensively with Polaroid methods in his series of self-portraits, which are
    voyeuristic and on the edge. Photo Transformations
    style=’font-size:8.0pt;font-family:Verdana’> of 1973 are all self-portraits
    made with a Polaroid SX-70 camera and altered by drawing directly onto the
    surface of the developing print, therefore confirming that the alternative
    techniques used in photography are as important as the finished work.


    There are
    a number of contemporary artists that use manipulation with a print to achieve
    unpredictable effects. Take for example Sigmar Polke, who creases, folds and
    plays with chemical developer as with his image of a bar in San Paolo. Or the
    artists such as Adam Fuss and Joseph Nechvotal that use photograms (the
    recording of movements of light or shadow directly onto photosensitive
    material, without the use of a camera), as a means to record fragmented movement
    of subjects and shadows. “In my Polaroid transfer pieces this endearing
    fragility appears at the physical level of the artwork, whose tissue of
    emulsion frays in the transfer to the new surface,” said Joan Lemler, who works with the Polaroid Transfer process
    to present quiet, nostalgic images of interiors and buildings. Her works, such
    as Ghosted Message,
    project a sense of urban isolation that is accentuated by the textures created
    through this process. There are also works by Masami Mori (Gerbera,
    style=’font-size:8.0pt;font-family:Verdana’> 1997) that are as fragile and
    delicate as the flowers depicted in her transfers. They would speak of death if
    not for the intense bright colors. There are a large number of artists who work
    in this technique and their artistic visions vary as much as their
    personalities. But the images created with this process always come across as
    somehow quiet, even ghostly.


    physical act of creating art generally contributes to its emotional quality
    such as with woodcutting, painting and drawing. Anything that involves direct
    contact between the artist and the material gives the artwork a human feel.
    This quality is evident in Polaroid transfers where artistic expression is
    found through process, and where process itself becomes part of the art.






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