Cooking the Emulsion
Olga Chemokhud Doty
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.