What is creativity? Find the right composition, or combine the perfect colors? This month we will present Morag Perkins, an analogue photographer from Glasgow showing her unique Polaroids to the world. These Polaroids has been taken, developed, torn apart and attached to a blank sheet of paper. To get the organic result you need some practice, some luck and a lot of patience.
You get something more with analog photography.
You get something physical that can be played with,
like these Polaroid Emulsions.
What’s your relationship with analog photography?
My work is probably about 90% analogue these days, mostly 35mm film and Polaroid although I’ve dabbled in other formats.
I first learned photography using digital cameras, starting with a decent compact, and later moving on to a DSLR. The instant feedback of digital was really helpful at that stage and gave me a good grounding in the basics, something I’m very glad of now!
Not long after that I raided my parents’ attic and came away with my Dad’s old 35mm SLR and a couple of rolls of expired film – but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that film really took off for me in a big way.
I’m disabled and vulnerable to covid, so for around 2 years I was pretty much limited to places I could walk to. Solo walks with my camera became an absolute lifeline. I would load a roll of film and head out to explore the tiniest details of my local area in all seasons and all weathers – it became a sort of ritual, a meditative exercise as well as a physical one. I learned the rhythms of the area, all the way down to the level of individual trees. I could tell you exactly where to find the best spider webs catching the August golden hour light, which trees in the forest hang on to their papery desiccated leaves right through the winter, and where they let the meadow grasses grow freely in spring.
Using film was a key part of this process for me; working very close up with a macro lens it’s easy to become totally absorbed in what you are doing, and even breathing matters. I found that with film there’s no temptation to break that flow – it may or may not have worked, and I won’t see the results for weeks or even months…so in that instant it doesn’t even matter. All you can do is let it go, and maybe there will be a moment of magic stored away in that little canister.
More recently I’ve brought Polaroid into the mix, which has added a whole new dimension to my work, and some of those moments from my pandemic walks have gone on to take on a new life as emulsion lifts that you can see in this collection.
How does it differ from digital photography for you?
Oddly enough, in many ways it doesn’t! Ultimately digital and analogue techniques are both just tools I use in the process of getting to where I want to be, and this collection is a good example of that as it is a hybrid creation that involved several different analogue and digital techniques along the way.
There are a few things about the nature of film and analogue photography that really suit me though:
There’s the aspect I just mentioned above, of not getting that instant feedback and having to wait to see the results, which can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the circumstances.
Then there’s the huge range of old cameras and interesting film stocks to play with. Really the only limit is your imagination. My photography has always had an experimental bent to it, right from the beginning, but working with film I’m finding that has really come into its own. I’m very lucky in that I seem to have fallen in with a group of online photographers who just love playing with film and pushing the boundaries of what can be done, and this is hugely inspiring to me. There’s so much to explore!
Finally – and this is a big one for me – analogue processes really encourage a sort of organic quality, and that is something I need.
Going all the way back, a key recurring feature of my work has always been that there is some organic element to it. I would freeze objects in ice to harness the distortions and bubbles, or wait days for changeable weather so that I could make use of the varying light. But working with digital I could still get stuck forever at the post processing stage, spending hours moving sliders the tiniest distance until I got it just exactly right. My perfectionist streak is just too strong. Working with film has helped me to break free of that and find the balance between chaos and order. My work is still often controlled, quiet, with elements carefully arranged – but ultimately it has been allowed to come together by itself without a struggle. It was working with film that unlocked that balance for me.
Evidence of that shift can be seen in this collection; when decades-old slide film came out bathed in a wash of ethereal purple, instead of attempting to ‘correct’ the colours, I chose to lean into it and work with it, seeking out scenes that would suit the effect. And when my disability meant that I was unable to hold the camera steady and some Polaroids came out blurry, I chose to work with them instead of discarding them, making my fatigue into an integral part of the art.
You call this work Polaroid emulsion lifts, how did you come up with it?
I definitely didn’t invent the technique! For as long as Polaroids have existed, people have been messing with them and finding ways to destroy them for artistic effect. I’ve come across examples of Polaroid emulsion lifts and transfers a few times in the past – there was a good one in the Linda McCartney exhibition in 2019 – and I’ve always been tempted to try it.
Enter the Shitty Camera Challenge. Formerly on Twitter, now moved to Mastodon, the Shitty Challenge is a loose collective of photographers who come together every so often to see what we can create with…well, shitty cameras. In the summer of 2022 the theme was instant cameras, gathering around the hashtag #InstantRegret. I picked up a very basic 1990s Polaroid camera from eBay for £12.50, very quickly discovered the infuriating joy of Polaroid and it all went from there. My only regret is that I passed up on the Spice Girls edition camera.
A lot of people are probably wondering what an emulsion lift is! The short version is that by cutting the frame off a Polaroid photograph, peeling the layers apart and soaking it in water you can end up with the emulsion – the actual image itself – floating around in water like a sort of translucent photo jellyfish. From there you can transfer it onto any surface you like – I use paper for these, sliding a sheet into the water under the emulsion to “catch” it, but people have transferred them onto glass, rocks, shells, pretty much anything you could think of.
It’s a very versatile technique with a lot of scope for experimenting, and with a bit of patience and practise you can choose to leave as many or as few creases, tears and folds in the emulsion as you like. For me it offers that perfect balance of controlled and organic and I’m really enjoying working with it and exploring the possibilities.
This collection is the result of that exploration – I hope you enjoy them!
Not just a Polaroid
This exhibition shows some unique photos processed like a typical Polaroid, but then attached by hand to a blank sheet of paper.