Something old is new again in Pia Centenari-Leonard’s work

When she was 8 years old, Pia Centenari-Leonard got a Brownie camera as a gift, launching a passion for photography. Now, decades later, Pia has turned to another vintage camera for her most recent series of photos. She uses a now-obsolete Polaroid Instant Camera with its on-the-spot self-developing film to create unique images that combine a retro look with a contemporary twist.

The process Leonard uses (referred to as an emulsion lift) involves separating the top layer (the emulsion layer) of a Polaroid photo from the paper backing, and mounting it onto glass or another surface.

The emulsion layer is semi-transparent, and somewhat stretchy in nature. To remove it, you soak the Polaroid in very hot water to loosen the glue attaching the emulsion to the paper. With tiny tongs you gently lift the image off and place it — in the form of a crumpled ball — onto the desired surface. Now comes the tricky part. Using a small implement of some sort, you carefully stretch the emulsion back into its original rectangular form, more or less. You can choose to manipulate the shape and edges in a variety of interesting ways, incorporating tears, wrinkles, and other imperfections into the finished product.

The result, depending on how much you choose to manipulate it, features irregular, even ragged edges and distortions to the image that transform it from a simple photo to an abstracted piece of art.

Pia is currently showing six of her emulsion lifts at the Galaxy Gallery in Oak Bluffs as part of the gallery’s Photography Show. From dozens of Polaroid images that she took over the years, she selected ones that she felt worked well with the process, and also represented scenes from around the Island.

“It’s a very delicate art,” says Pia of the painstaking process of unraveling the emulsion. “It’s simple but complex. You can follow the science of how to get it off the card, but it’s in the stretching and placement that the creative part comes into play.”

Pia has chosen to mount her images onto glass. The distortions created by the process, combined with the transparency of the surface, give the images a sort of haunting look — like a newly rediscovered, partially obscured memory of something from the past.

Along with the original 4- by 6-inch images on glass, Leonard is also showing larger giclée prints of each.

Although she spent years as a breeder of fine sport horses and as a professional videographer, Pia also has a background in the arts. She studied filmmaking, studio art, and photography at an academy in Rome, then returned to the states to complete degrees in psychology and education, with a minor in sociology and film. After moving to the Island in 1983 (her summer home since childhood), Pia founded her own video production business, which she ran for over 30 years, simultaneously with her horse breeding business (which produced thoroughbreds whose lineage goes back to Secretariat’s sire, Bold Ruler).

All along Pia continued to shoot photos, and her interest in photography never wavered. In 2003 she discovered the Polaroid manipulation process, and was immediately intrigued. She grabbed an old Polaroid camera that she had purchased previously, stocked up on Polaroid film (which was discontinued in 2009), and also purchased a device that copies traditional photographs onto Polaroid film. With that, a new obsession was born, which Pia has pursued enthusiastically ever since.

She has also started stretching her creative boundaries by working in stained glass. She took a class at the Featherstone Center for the Arts a few years back and has been creating lovely, colorful window hangings in abstract and representational patterns. Examples of the artist’s stained glass designs will be featured in a show at the Galaxy Gallery in August.


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