Emulsion Lifts

I couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. I had been shooting with Tony Richards for a second time ( in the evening and he let me borrow his Araki book ‘Self-Life-Death’. I spent a few hours going through it and mid-insomnia I was inspired to get out of bed and try some emulsion lifts for the first time. I don’t know why I haven’t tried them sooner because they’re mega easy to do.

I won’t write a detailed description because I can’t be arsed and that’s what Google is for. All you need is water and some watercolour paper. It was 4am when I decided to get up and do mine, so too late to go out and rummage around in the garage for my trays. Instead I just used saucepans. Hot water in one (I used water from the kettle that had cooled down a bit) and cold water in the other. You cut the film image out of the frame, peel the back off it and place it in the hot water. It takes about 5 minutes for the film to start coming away – it sort of looks like gelatin floating in the water. Then you can carefully put it into the cold water where it will stiffen up a bit and be easier to shape for positioning onto the paper. It’s probably less fidgety if you use a paintbrush to place the film onto the paper once in the cold water, but like everything I do, I crave chaos and the haphazardness of making sure things come out imperfect. So I used my fingers!

Tony’s Araki book also came in handy for flattening the prints once they’d dried. (It’s like a brick, that book).

Here’s my first attempt, I didn’t practise as the online peeps suggest you should as I think first go’s at new things tend to be when you get your best outcome (in my experience). This is my lovely friend Fizzy and it was shot on PX 680 Color Protection film in 2013.


I made another from the same shoot but of a different model. This is the gorgeous and talented Eve who is currently in Dubai being a crazily skilled circus performer. As you can see, the film also increased in size a bit from being in the  hot water.


After those first two I thought I’d see how a damaged Polaroid shot on a different film type would take to the process. I had previously damaged this one by drying it with an industrial strength fan heater at a studio. The film image inside actually melted away from the frame and had bubbles on it. I wasn’t sure if it would just crumble in the hot water because it looked pretty fragile. It didn’t fizzle away in the water however, and instead came out looking fairly soft and almost like a wee watercolour painting. You can see how damaged it is from the scratches and shadows of bubbles from the heat where it melted. This is from a shoot with Katy back in January 2013.


I did a couple of others after that, that I’m not as sure about. These Zoi Polaroids were a little underexposed so I’m undecided on whether they work as well. It’s mostly the colour that bothers me rather than just the flatness and the fact that you can’t see Zoi’s eyes. I know I could play with them in PS. I never used them in Polaroid form probably for the same reasons why I’m conflicted over how they look in this form too. The white residue in the folds is from the emulsion, a lot of it comes off when it’s in the hot water but sometimes it doesn’t wash off. I found on the Katy Polaroid that all of it did, but that was a different film type (Cool Color Shade) so perhaps that’s why.


It’s pretty easy to straighten out the film when you’re positioning it, but I thought that looked very boring and ultimately pointless to the process. You can put the film back into the water and start over if you dislike how you’ve placed it. The film is quite fragile when it’s in the hot water, but as long as the water isn’t too hot, it can be very malleable without damaging it. I like that you can tear it and create creases and folds so on, which I had a go at on the Zoi Polaroids. Although the hole in her bewb was a genuine accident.

I’m shooting some new work soon with the intention of making emulsion lifts with them. It’s been fun to go back through old stuff and use some previously unpublished Polaroids, but it’ll be more fun using news ones straight away! 🙂

About elegia

I like cats and cake and tea.

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