Raider of the lost art

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2007, 12:00am

Photographer, filmmaker and author Julian Lee Chi-Chiu (above) gazes at a collection of 20 works he created using the nigh obsolete process of image-transfer photo printing. 'These prints are like orphans,' he says.

Lee fell in love with the image-transfer (also known as Polaroid transfer) process after he graduated with a masters degree in photography from the Royal College of Art in London in 1991. But since Polaroid has discontinued production of a crucial component of the process - peel-apart instant film - image transfer has become a dying art.

It's a complicated business. A slide of the desired image and some peel-apart instant film are both loaded into a slide developer. A flash goes off and the slide image is exposed onto the instant film. The film sheet is quickly pulled out of the machine and peeled in half. The top half - the emulsion side where the image is rapidly developing - is then laid face down on a dampened piece of watercolour paper, so the image rubs onto it. As the emulsion is pressed onto the textured surface, it creates a warm, diffused image with uneven borders. As a result, each print has individual blemishes and marks.

Hong Kong-born Lee, who started his career as a scriptwriter for TVB and, in 1996, worked as a stills photographer for director Wong Kar-wai on the film Happy Together, spent 10 years scouring Europe for subject matter. He found unlikely models in painted religious icons and sculptures housed in churches, on the streets and in museums in Paris, Barcelona and Budapest.

In his studio, he emphasised the painterly quality of his works by brushing gold dust accents on his prints, each of which was unique - although they may have been derived from the same slide.

Subverted sensuality in religious art is a theme in Lee's work. 'The theme of temptation in the religious pieces rests on the sensuality and fragility of the male body and the desire of man from the Virgin Mary,' he says of his art. 'I always think of betraying the body as the ultimate temptation.'

Image transfers became Lee's trademark and throughout the 1990s his photos were commissioned by book publishers and magazines. British pop star Boy George used his piece Weeping Jesus on the cover of Aids benefit single Il Adore. Polaroid even invited him to do large scale image-transfer prints at the firm's London headquarters. 'I used about 40 sheets of their large format emulsion paper, which probably totalled HK$20,000,' says Lee. 'They didn't ask me for money, only that I donate one of my prints to their private gallery.'

Since returning to Hong Kong in 1997, Lee has stayed under the radar as a photographer. He made his last image-transfer print in 2003. Copies of his prints, and Pure (HK$100), a book that chronicles his work, are available by contacting More examples of Lee's work can be seen at