“I feel like an old soul in general. If I’m shopping, I’d rather buy something old and upcycle it or do something that appreciates the value of what it used to be,” said Charlottesville- based alternative photographer Cary Oliva. “Things were just more beautiful back in the day.”
The intrigue of age surfaces in the majority of Oliva’s work. Her alternative photography manipulates instant film formats to create ghostly, watercolor-like images with textural imperfections and light flares. Image transfers and emulsion lifts, her primary methods of photo art, interrupt the development process to achieve a washed-out patina in contemporary photographs (think local farmland or a palm tree-strewn beach).
A long-time devotee of Polaroid, which famously went bankrupt in 2009, Oliva routinely makes art out of leftovers. These days, she’s forced to negotiate a seriously curtailed supply of film, but her interest in vintage mediums for photography was piqued more than two decades ago.
“I moved to New York City [from Virginia] in the late ’90s and wanted to take pictures of everything,” she said. “I studied fine art in school, but photography felt impulsive, with an intuitive draw.” She quickly fell in love with the painterly effects achieved by alternative photography, and after deciding to teach herself the craft, “went thrift store shopping to find a camera.”
One of her favorite early art forms was Polaroid manipulation. “I absolutely loved that ’70s film, the kind you’d shake. If you kept it warm, you could manipulate the gel from the outside and create these little brightly colored paintings. I remember sitting in my car in the summer or, if it wasn’t warm enough outside, rigging the electric outlets so I’d have a little hotplate to keep the film warm.”
Eventually, Polaroid stopped producing that particular kind of film. By that point, though, Oliva had expanded her repertoire to include image transfers, which create subtle painting-esque imagery by disrupting film development.
Instant film, like the Polaroid 669 Oliva favors, functions as a reactive sandwich. Each piece has a positive and a negative side, and once a photographer takes her shot, the film gets pulled through rollers that squish positive and negative chemicals together, triggering the reaction that slowly develops the image’s colors.
Normally, Polaroid photographers let this film develop for several minutes, but Oliva pulls the print out before the image has a chance to finish and applies the negative, complete with its in-process inks, to a piece of treated paper where it finishes developing.
The result is an image transfer and “a one-time thing,” Oliva said. “I can’t take that negative and reuse it again. It’s not a transparency, it’s just the inks, so each transfer is an original. You can’t recreate it, but you can scan them, like I do, and bring them into Photoshop and make them into prints.”
The process takes an incredibly long time, Oliva said, and requires a number of delicate conditions to be met. Art paper must be treated with just the right amount of water, and the separation of positive and negative is exacting. To minimize the difficulties of working “in the field,” she uses a unique system that assembles old school parts.
Today, Oliva takes most of her images with slide film using her 35mm SLR film camera, though she also owns a 1960s vintage Polaroid camera that’s been rigged to accommodate a modern battery. She exposes the slide images onto the peel-apart film using a “portable darkroom.” In just a few seconds, she’s able to expose the slide onto the Polaroid film within the machine and then create an image transfer.
But no amount of innovation can slow the passage of time that’s steadily chipping away at Oliva’s most critical resource. “I can only buy [Polaroid 669 film] on eBay, and it’s all expired,” she said. “The final images are often too brown, and I’m not happy with it. There’s also a group called The Impossible Project that’s created film for SX-70 camera, and they market it as being the same,” she said. “But it doesn’t work the same way.”
Like most artists given limiting parameters, Oliva has creative solutions. “I’ve been teaching myself how to use Fujifilm. It’s new to me, but it’s still really old school,” she said. “I’ve saved a lot of images, the positives of images I’ve used before, and I’m reinventing them as emulsion lifts.”
To create an emulsion lift, she soaks the 3.25″ x 4.25″ positive in near-boiling water, then slowly takes a small brush and pushes the emulsion off from the backing paper. What’s left is a very delicate, onion skin-style image that she transfers into a vat of colder water, then lifts off the back onto another substrate, like metal, rocks or cloth.
“It has this very interesting, dreamy quality in a different way than anything else,” Oliva said. “An emulsion lift isn’t perfect. It’s just what’s left. The edges curl up, it gets wrinkled and it has movement and other elements you just don’t get in a transfer.”
In general, photographers rely on the accuracy of their film, but it’s the instability of her alternative forms that cements Oliva’s loyalty. She spent a week at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina refining these new processes, which she plans to teach in the spring.
“I’m on Instagram a lot lately using the hashtag #filmisnotdead,” she said. “This work helps me slow down and be more mindful about the things I do in life. I love sharing it. If people have never seen the process, they’re usually amazed.”