What Is A Polaroid Emulsion Lift?

An image of photographer Kevin Wimmer

Kevin Wimmer

A Polaroid emulsion lift, also known as an emulsion transfer, is created by manipulating a Polaroid photograph. Several layers comprise a Polaroid Image. There is a clear plastic front, followed by the emulsion layer. The image itself consists of the emulsion, which contains the actual photochemistry. Beneath that is a white layer of developer chemicals that act as a backing to make the emulsion visible, followed by the negative of the photograph. More information about what’s in Polaroid film can be found here. An emulsion lift is when one removes and places the emulsion from a Polaroid on a new surface. A variety of materials work for the new surface, but the most common include paper, glass, and wood.

Image showing the required tools to do a Polaroid Emulsion LiftWhat Supplies Are Required?

There is a minimal amount of supplies needed to execute my technique for a Polaroid emulsion lift. In addition to a Polaroid, all that’s required is a pair of scissors, a sponge, a brush, warm water, and a container to hold it. I recommend using a brush with very soft, yet short bristles. I actually use a makeup brush!  For the sponge, I use a painting sponge that I cut in half. You want a flat smooth surface on one side of the sponge to aid when removing the developer chemicals from the emulsion. As far as the container goes, you want it to be big enough to hold the photo and whatever you wish to tranfer the image to. A new surface, such as a piece of paper, is also necessary. I find myself often using sheets of glass that I cut from frames from the dollar store.

How Do You Perform An Emulsion Lift?

This video highlights my specific method for doing an emulsion lift. There are many different ways to do one- this is just how I do it! I begin by cutting the edges of the Polaroid to break the bond that keeps the layers together. I then snip 2 tabs that connect the negative to the front of the photo. After that, I peel the back from the front, separating the negative from the emulsion. There is often developer (the white chemicals) left on both the negative and the emulsion. I use a sponge to gently clean the back of the emulsion using warm water. I then replace that water with fresh water before performing the next step. 

Once all the developer chemicals are cleaned off, I cut around the perimeter of the photo. This is to free the emulsion from glue that bonds it to the plastic front. I use a paintbrush to go around the edge of the photo, gently prying up the emulsion layer. Once the entire emulsion is removed from the plastic, I submerge the new surface, most often a sheet of glass, beneath it. I gently arrange the emulsion and manipulate its appearance. Once I’m happy with how it looks, I leave it to dry. That’s all there is to it! View the works I’ve created using this technique here.

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