The art of Polaroid transferral has essentially been born from the
irresponsibility of Polaroid research employees.
These were the 60s and Polaroid cameras were apparently still using
peel-apart film. One sunny afternoon, a researcher motivated by needs
stronger than continued employment left the negative side of an exposed
sheet of film lying face-down on a countertop. When the negative was
peeled away, the researchers found that the positive image had been
transferred onto the table.
Many years of research and development later, Polaroid transferral is
a refined system of alternative printmaking. The appeal of transfer images
is hard to define without getting excessively mystical and subjective;
suffice to say that even the most badly-done transfers bring out aspects
of photographs normal prints do not deliver. Typically, a Polaroid transfer
looks halfway between a photograph and a watercolor painting, but the best
transfers transcend either definition.
The only real limit to transfer-making is the film: it is necessary to use
peel-apart Polaroid film. The general process involves slapping the negative
side of an exposed -- yet undeveloped -- peel-apart film sheet onto a piece of moist watercolor
paper and blasting the pairing with heat prior to seperation.
It can be difficult to start working in this medium. Peel-apart film is not commonly used in consumer
Polaroid cameras these days; do not be surprised at the inevitable long
searches, dismaying price tags and struggles on eBay which are part of the
process. Exposing the film is another problem for beginners; suitable
cameras or slide printers can also be difficult to find, as the single-sheet
Polaroid cameras immortalized in Memento are unsuitable for transfer work.
None of the obstacles are so great that you should lose interest in the
art, however; I started with no experience and only vague ideas on how the
process worked and survived to lead you through the process.
First, the basic necessities...
As far as film goes, there is less choice than you may imagine: there is
only Polaroid-made film, and there are only two real types of that. Although
many companies manufacture peel-apart film, no other companies have yet made a
film capable of transferring images (hence, "Polaroid transfer").
For all intents and purposes, the only film useful for transfers is the
Polacolor ER "9" series. Of all the varieties of this film, there are two
essential categories: sheet and pack film.
Sheet film comes in single-exposure packets and is sold by the twentysome.
Apart from the Type 809 series, with its unusually large 8"x10" sheet size,
all sheet film is 4"x5" and must be exposed using a Polaroid Model 545 film
holder (exposure methods will be addressed later).
Although field use of sheet film can be difficult, it has its advantages; it is
cheaper than pack film, and the sheet's self-contained structure allows you
to expose single shots without having to immediately develop the image. Also,
sheet film is packaged in a way that ensures perfect alignment of the positive
and negative sheets, making it more reliable than pack film.
Despite all the good things I've heard about sheet film, I have never been able
to find any source of sheet film or a suitable film holder; its inexpensiveness
is apparently offset by its clever hiding place.
Pack film can be bought in 3.25"x4.25" packs (ten to a pack, two packs
to a box) or 4"x5" packs (eight to a pack, one pack to a box). It is simpler
to use pack film in cameras and printers... which is a bummer, as it is more
expensive and less reliable. It is, however, easier to come by, and a pack of
Polacolor 669 film (a 3.25"x4.25") is the usual starting place for aspiring
transfer artists, as it is the standard film used by all entry-level equipment.
Pack film is the film used in old-fashioned consumer cameras. First you expose
the film, then yank the small white tab to join the negative and positive sides,
and finally you pull the film sandwich through the rollers to release the development
chemicals and ready the next shot for exposure.
The process of sullenly waiting for a big slat of chemicals to finish its work is
less ritualistically satisfying than waving around and blowing on modern Polaroid sheets,
but the forceful yanking is entertaining as hell for uninitiated onlookers.
Do not be afraid of expired film; by and large it produces results no less interesting
than fresh film and it is much less expensive. eBay is a good place to
look for pack film; I saved something like $140 on a bulk load of Polacolor 669 boxes, a load
I still have not used up. Sheet film is apparently taboo on eBay, as I have never seen
it being sold.
Having the film is well and good, but without some way to expose the film the purchase
may feel a bit empty. Again, there are two paths: slide printers and Polaroid cameras.
I regret having started with a camera, as there is very little I can say with any
authority on the matter of slide printers, and there is very little to be said at all
about cameras. Technically, any camera fitted with a suitable film holder is capable of
exposing the film, but the cheapest and easiest route is the Polaroid ProPack System.
True to its name, the ProPack System exposes pack film -- 3.25"x4.25" pack film, specifically --
and comes with features such as a flash and a timer. It is the only camera available from
Polaroid that uses peel-apart film and is aimed at real estate workers and police. There are
usually one or two being sold on eBay -- a wise place to look, as fresh cameras are wretchedly
An interesting side note is that there is a company manufacturing simple pinhole cameras
fitted with film holders; if you really want to directly expose pictures onto sheet film and
are in no hurry to take the picture, this may be just what you've been looking for.
A slide printer is a device used to project a slide onto a sheet of Polaroid film. The model
usually used by beginners is the Vivitar Instant Slide Printer, which projects onto Polacolor
669 film. If you want to be able to take pictures without immediately having to turn them
into transfers, this system is ideal; you get pictures developed into slides, stick in a pack
of 669 film, and push the blue button once for each slide you want to print.
A more advanced printer is the Daylab II, an advantage to which is its modular base system;
a new base can be purchased for each size of film you wish to print on, even up to 8"x10" 809
film sheets. Starting with this would be a bad idea, however, as it and the film it is useful
for are expensive as hell, and the first few attempts will likely be frustrating failures.
Once you've covered the film and exposure system, the rest is pretty simple.
You will need:
Now, the moment of truth... pulling it all together. Many variations on the process
exist, but I have come to trust my own ("The Amarcord Method" has a nice ring to it),
which is what I will be leading you through here.
- First, prepare your watercolor paper a half hour in advance. Cut the sheet into
pieces slightly larger than the film itself; 4"x5" is a good size for 669 film. The
piece you intend to transfer onto should then be let to soak in hot water for ten
minutes. At the end of this ten minutes, let the paper dry for a few minutes, place
the damp piece of paper onto the cutting board and squeegee it flat. Make sure its
surface moisture is even.
- Assuming your exposure system is already loaded, expose your film. Draw the film
through the rollers in a single, steady motion. You must wait roughly 10 seconds before peeling
apart the film; in this time you should take the scissors and cut off the trap of the film.
In 669 film, this is the area next to the flap you used to pull the film through the rollers.
- Peel the film apart in another steady motion using the remaining ends of the trap. Holding the
negative by the paper on the other end of the sheet, place one side of the sheet on the
paper, draw the film taut and lay it flat over the paper. Draw your hand over the back of
the film once or twice to ensure good adherence.
- Fill the kettle with about 4 cups of water and leave it to boil. When the water begins to
boil, stop heating the kettle.
- Flip over the film and paper so that the underside of the paper is exposed. Leaving the
paper and film laying on the board, place it at an angle in the sink and slowly pour the
near-boiling water over the paper. Make sure the entire area behind the film has been exposed
to the water.
- Turn the sheet of paper back over. For good luck, you may want to peel away the remains of
the trap, which should no longer adhere to the film if enough heat was applied. Lift the negative
by a corner and peel it back from the paper.
- Congratulate yourself; you've just mastered the basics of one of the most visually stunning
methods of photographic printing.