Nan Melville Photography & Video

Polaroid Transfers

My life in New York City is hectic. However, on the occasional lull weekend I can be found in the Gould’s kitchen in Princeton – spatula in hand – over a steaming electric frying pan. I am absorbed with my Polaroid Soup! I watch the Polaroid print start to blister in the very hot water so I can whip it out at the right moment and pop it into cold water. Here I gently coax the membranous emulsion from the backing and carefully free it of the gel which was holding it to the print. Now liberated from the constraints of the print the image floats free – waiting for its transformation and new life when I place it on watercolor paper, glass or whatever medium creative inspiration calls for. This is the fun part; manipulating it onto its new home under water and lifting it out intact. Sometimes the emulsion membrane containing the image falls into its own arrangement near-perfectly. But generally I tweak, tear or fold the image with the lightest fingertip touch. Finally when the image is in position, I get the excess water off with a roller – and behold with chef-like satisfaction a Polaroid Emulsion Transfer – a work of art!


Sea scenes, Emulsion Polaroid Transfer, Cape Town, 2003

Sea scenes, Emulsion Polaroid Transfer, Cape Town, 2003



Baryshnikov, Triptych, Polaroid Image Transfer, 1999

Baryshnikov, Triptych, Polaroid Image Transfer, 1999



Polaroid Transfer Exhibition, Artvark Gallery, Cape Town, 2000

Polaroid Transfer Exhibition, Artvark Gallery, Cape Town, 2000



Doors, Polaroid transfer derelict house, Zaneen, South Africa, 2006

Doors, Polaroid transfer derelict house, Zaneen, South Africa, 2006



Emulsion Polaroid transfer; Nan Melville; New York City; 2005


Fellow South African photographer, Sue Cook, introduced me to another Polaroid Transfer process – Image Transfer. Evidently this process was ‘born’ when a lab worker at Polaroid left a negative face down on a counter top overnight. Next morning when he peeled it off he was intrigued by the image transferred by the dye to the counter. As soon as I made my first Image Transfer I was hooked: exposing a slide onto Polaroid film, pulling the negative carrier out of the Daylight Lab, and peeling the piece of film apart prematurely – before it has a chance to transfer the dye to make a photo. Then placing the negative (the gooey piece normally thrown away) onto a piece of warm, damp watercolor paper. Next… dance round it for a while, squeegee gently, press with fingers, breathe on it to work the magic. Finally the revelation: peel the negative carefully off the paper (or rip it off depending on your daring) – and again behold – ART!

An important feature of these transfers – whether Emulsion or Image – is that each one is unique. There are so many factors that affect the outcome of each transfer – the length of exposure of the slide onto the film; the time elapsed before peeling the film apart; the type of material or paper used; the speed at which you peel the negative from the watercolor paper. And of course, the quality of the dance you do while waiting for the magic to happen! Bottom line: While you can control certain aspects of each transfer there is still an element of chance in the end result.

Once they are dry, transfers can be taken to another artistic level. You can color them using pencil crayons, pastels or paint – in fact there is no limit to the possibilities. It is all a question of imagination and creativity – generally true of all art.

In addition to solitary hours “playing transfers”, I very much enjoy sharing this art form. Armed with my Daylab, electric frying pan, film, a few slides, watercolor paper, squeegee, spatula and paper towels, I have done several Emulsion Transfer demonstrations at the Plainsboro Library Arts Festivals in New Jersey. I have been delighted to see the enjoyment on the faces of people of all ages watching the process, and then doing it themselves. It can be as fast as about 5-10 minutes to make a print. Once I received a special thank you from a mother whose little boy was very withdrawn and never wanted to try anything – who actually made an emulsion transfer with his little fingers in the water – and loved it. I have also done on the spot Image Transfer portraits using a Polaroid camera (bought for $1 at a yard sale).

I have been dabbling with this process for some time. A 1998 exhibition of my dance photography in Princeton, USA contained a number of Polaroid transfer works. In 1999 in South Africa I had an exhibition of “Polaroid Transfers” at the Aardvark Gallery in Kalk Bay, Cape Town.

In an age where much of the photographic process is done hunched over the computer pressing keys (yes, sit up straight, Nan!) I have found doing Polaroid transfers to be a great light relief, and the hands-very-much-on activity a re-creation of the joy of pre-digital photography.

Like many others, I was dismayed when Polaroid announced that they would stop producing instant film products in 2009. However, in response to a consumer outcry, Polaroid commissioned The Impossible Project to develop and produce a limited edition of Polaroid branded Instant Films in mid 2010. Apparently the PIC-1000 – the next generation of Polaroid cameras – was spotted at the January 2010 Consumer Electronics Show.

However, the future of Polaroid transfers is uncertain. There is no guarantee that the specialized type of film necessary will still be available. So excuse me, my soup is calling!