Visual Arts

Polaroid faded away, but Tiffany Mulherin's artwork is still bright

In these days of digital photography, it's easy to forget that once upon a time the Polaroid existed. Instant photos had a completely different meaning when you could hold them in your hand, and Denver artist Tiffany Mulherin played with those instant prints until she came up with her own take on it. Now she makes a living off of her idea -- transferring the positive or negative images of a Polaroid print to paper surface for colorization. She took some time to talk to us about her medium, her process and why she has stuck with it.

I know your process is very complicated, but could you briefly explain it for those who are unfamiliar with emulsion transfer techniques?

Sure. I use two processes -- an image transfer and an emulsion transfer. The Polaroid image transfer process is when Polaroid peel-apart film is used to create an original print on a traditionally non-photographic surface. The two parts of the Polaroid are separated prematurely, interrupting the process by which the dyes migrate from the negative to the positive print. The dye on the negative can be transferred to the receptor surface. Upon drying, the image is usually hand colored or hand painted with Prismacolors or Watercolors.

The emulsion transfer process uses exposed Polaroid film which is placed in a hot bath after it dries. After the soak, the emulsion begins to lift off of the paper backing. The emulsion is gently peeled or rubbed off the paper backing. The emulsion is now free to be transferred to the receptor surface and can be wrinkled, torn, and distorted. After it dries, I can color it.

How long have you been doing image and emulsion transfers?

I taught myself in college for a project, so I would say probably almost ten years.

How has your practice of the medium changed in that time?

Well it has changed a lot because Polaroid has gone out of business, so I have a stock pile of film. There is a new company making Polaroid-type film, but they don't use the same exact kind of film. So, I have been transferring to inkjet transfers. I print and then transfer that print onto another piece of paper. I also use Fuji film, which is similar to Polaroid film, but it doesn't have the same watercolor effect.

What makes Polaroid film the best for your process?

Basically, it's different because it's an instant film, so I can use the negative side or the positive side of the Polaroid, depending on what image I want to do. I can do an image transfer or an emulsion transfer. And you can see the difference because of how the image transfers -- the edges look different, there's also a type of watercolor effect, and you can see that in my work.

Do you take the photos that you transfer?

I take all of my photography, and I take those pictures pretty much all over the place. I take a lot of nature photography, but I also take portraits and dabble in fashion. Being in nature, however, is very inspiring and I can take it easy. It's not hectic and I find it inspirational to be able to capture details in those natural settings. A lot of my work is those details.

Are you limited in the size of your work to the size of a Polaroid?

Of course, because the Polaroid film is three and a quarter inches by four and a quarter inches -- I have some eight by ten works that I've done, and with my new work, I can do my pieces a lot larger. I can do up to thirteen by nineteen for an original piece. Obviously, any work can be reproduced to a larger piece, but the original, one-of-a-kind transfer is limited by the size of the original.

What do you enjoy about transfer images? Why do you use transfers as part of your process?

I like doing it because it gives my work a softer feeling and also an interesting quality that a regular photograph may not have. The whole process is a lot of fun. It's a lot of work, but I think the process gives the piece a lot of interest. And I also like to give the pieces more of a watercolor look. Some people think that they are watercolors, and don't even realize that they are photographs.

To contact Mulherin or to check out her work, visit her website.

Follow us on Twitter! Like us on Facebook!

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tiffany Fitzgerald