An Interview With Music & Portrait Film Photographer, Laura Partain

On a recent trip to Nashville, I met up with portrait and music photographer, Laura Partain. Spring was starting to show its face, and we sat on a sunny patio to dive head first into some coffee and photography talk.

Laura is one of the most passionate photographers that I know, she’s wicked talented, sharp, witty, and as you will come to know from our interview, she completely blurs and juxtaposes the often separated viewpoints of art and gear.

Our interview quickly turned to a conversation format, and I think it’s better for it. Come along with us as we dive in!

INTERVIEW

From an artistic or emotional perspective, why shoot film?

That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I have much of an answer for that. I want to think, my opinion aside, a great image is a great image. Whether you shoot it on a piece of gelatin, a piece of glass, a digital sensor, or silver and gelatin materials, a great photo is a great photo, regardless of it being shot on Kodak, motion picture film, or a digital sensor. But why do I shoot film? I shoot it because it feels good for what I want out of my work, and that’s why it is such a deeply personal thing I guess.


I wish I had a better way to articulate it, but I guess I should say that I shoot film because I have a personal preference for the aesthetic. I do have a couple of digital cameras, and right now I have a Fuji XPro 2 that I love. I shoot it a lot, but I will get my proofs back from the lab and compare the files, it’s just no contest. Almost 9.99 times out of 10 I prefer my film files.


For me, it’s that the quality that I can generally get out of a device that’s creating images out of ones and zeros, (which I think it is kind of a miracle in itself and pretty cool when you think about it) what I get out of those and zeros versus layers of color dyes or the silver in the gelatin and the mixture of the two, I find that I get better tones and colors out of film. And so it’s hard for me to have a conversation about it with technicality aside.

I think your first honest answer is the answer, technicalities aside. It’s a feeling. The reason I even ask that question is that for myself the most I usually shoot film is playing with some 35mm every once in a while, but most of my work is digital based, often lighting, and lots of post work. For years I’ve been searching for this particular feel in an image that I can see in my head and some other’s work. I keep picking the work apart in search of better tonality, or shadow quality, or color, and so on and try to adjust things over time to get right where I want to be. To get to what I see in my head, where it should look like what I’m going for, but it doesn’t. So the more I kept digging into it, it’s got to be that film quality that only exists there.

Do you remember the first time you saw a favorite TV show or movie on one of those super high Def televisions? I walked into someone’s house, and The Office was playing on one of those TVs, and I was like “What the fuck is that?”. It made the whole thing look like a soap opera set. It removed the dream-like and story quality of it.

It’s to me, disgusting how a lot of newer television sets, how they render images because, your right, I don’t want to be able to see the flakes of powder on someone’s face. It feels almost gross.

I think that’s maybe another reason I’m drawn more and more towards film.

I wanted, if you don’t mind, to go back to something you had mentioned. When we were talking about technicalities aside, and you had mentioned I had said that “feel” is the word. Well, the thing is that feel is technique. Feel is material, feel is everything. Whether you’re playing a 100-year-old upright bass or a Fender from the sixties, if you’re shooting a Hasselblad that they put out in the seventies or a Contax 35mm from the 2000s, the reality is that yes, you can so much as take a disposable camera, you can choose an old digital camera/and go out into the world and make great work. The feel is embedded in that device to a large extent.

Feel is the nature of a particular sort of film grain created for Delta 3200 at Ilford and how fast it hits the emulsion in the factory. Then when it gets to my camera, and I load the film, shoot it, go to a show, underexpose it then overdevelop it at two stops. The feel is the difference between me shooting a roll of film at 400 speed, 800 speed, 1600 speed, and the feeling will change. I can have a stunning photograph with tons of emotion in it, but it’s going to feel different depending on how I shot it and developed it. I could have a beautiful moment with real, authentic, genuine emotion in it, but if I did a crappy job shooting it or developing it, the impact might very well be gone.

You kill the narrative.

Right.

One of my favorite quotes, I’m going to paraphrase it, is by this author named Steven Pressfield and he is famous for writing The War Of Art. He talks about when one toils by the front door of technique they allow for genius to enter through the back. The more and more people pick up their instrument every day and practice; whether that’s a musical instrument, their voice, a camera, writing, whatever it is, when you practice every single day, the more you’re going to take that lucky moment that eventually happens and turn it into something you can definitely get.

There’s another quote I love that says the harder you work, the luckier you get. So for me, when I think about the concept of feel, feel is so madly in love and married to technique and material and camera, or whatever it is. They are entwined, and you really can’t separate them. It’s a beautiful thing to be celebrated. I think it’s lovely that any camera and film combination, or digital camera and preset combination, or a lack of preset, or the changing of a lens, all these things are working together to give you that gift that is that photograph.

I typically try to steer away from “gear talk” in my interviews, but I think the way you are talking about it I might compare to an artist’s brush combined with their technique. It’s not that the brush creates the stroke, but the consideration of the brush itself -- what it is made of, how it is made, and that in combination with the artist’s hand makes such a specific stroke. This is not gear-geekery in the most technical sense.

Gear geekery for me is like, I don’t want to sit and chat with somebody about it. I think it’s more of a digital thing and I can get that way with film to some extent. I do hit a point talking about gear where I do turn off. I’m like, “this is boring now.”

What creates magic is a myriad of things that are all important. That’s how I see it. I would never preach from the mountaintops and say, “you don’t need special gear to shoot and make beautiful things,” just as much as I would never get on a mountaintop and say, “having the best gear is the most important thing to your career.” Both of those things are false, but together with a bunch of other words, they are all critical if that makes sense.

Let’s talk about pushed film. You mentioned it briefly earlier and then I was going through your Instagram this morning, and on a couple of your recent posts, you’d mentioned that you’d pushed it. Especially since Mastin has released their pushed presets, I think it is a concept that people are only recently coming around to as far as bringing it back into a more known practice.

That’s a great way to put it because I would say otherwise people have been pushing film -- people used to push plates back in the 19th century. The concept has been there. I mean they pull plates, it’s a push/pull. There are actual films out there that are intended to be pushed. All the Delta films and all the T-Max films are meant to be pushed. They look awesome pushed. If you ever look at a roll of T-Max 400 pushed two stops versus a roll of Tri-X pushed two stops… excuse me while I throw up. It’s like, why? You could have so many beautiful, rich, sexy tones on films that are made to be pushed. Tri-X is a beautiful film. It has a different grain structure which is attractive to a lot of people, even if they don’t fully understand that concept. They look different. A lot of people think T-Max looks flat and they don’t like it. T-Max though was born to be pushed. That’s why I love to push it a couple of stops, occasionally. I don’t always buy it to be pushed. I like having it for a lot of reasons.

One is that if I’m in a lighting situation where the lights are going down, and I’ve got T-Max 400 loaded up, I don’t worry about, “is this going to show up?” because I push it a couple of stops and it looks incredible. Tri-X just won’t -- it’s just a fact, it won’t push as well. But as far as pulling and pushing film I don’t pull film so much. I push color film and black and white. Color film is not meant to be pushed. It barely pushes to be honest. You can pay a lab to push your color film, but souping it in developer longer isn’t going to help as much as you think. I do push my color film, but I don’t anticipate it to push like black and white film.

I can’t give you all the precise details for how it works because I don’t fully understand the complexities of color film and why it wouldn’t push as well, but I know that it tends to not. An example I can say, and I have done this in tests if I take color film -- a roll of Portra 400 or a roll of T-Max 400 and push them two stops I get a lot more tones out of my black and white film than my color. With pushing film for me, sometimes it’s out of necessity, sometimes it’s for aesthetic reasons. I would say nine times out of ten it’s for need. I’m on a shoot, the light’s not what I thought, and assuming I’m mostly lighting it naturally or entirely, then at that point you’re at the mercy of whatever found light you have. I can’t necessarily think of a time where I thought, “I just want to push film to push film.” Because I would instead get the most out of that films tonal range by shooting it at box speed. I don’t see a reason to want to lose out on tones.

Now, if in the event of digital, and I’ve never tried the pushed presets… but I think a preset like that could be great for shooting a concert. Because I know if I were shooting film, it would be a pushed film. So if I were shooting digital, it would make sense to use a pushed preset. I would say the short answer though is that when I do push film, whether it is color or black and white, it’s almost always for practical reasons. Or sometimes it is for safety sake too. If I was in a situation where I didn’t really get a chance to meter because everything was happening around me and I just had to guess (and I wasn’t entirely confident on my guess) I might push it a stop. I’m not talking about broad daylight like this, I’m talking about being in a lower light situation or at dusk, and I’m not entirely sure. If by the time I’m done shooting it’s dark outside I can’t just after the fact pull out my meter and be like, “whoah, was I right?”. It would be different. So, sometimes for safety sake, I push film.

I have one more question for you and it’s a short one I like to ask people. The question is, what is an odd or interesting fact that most people might not know about you?

Um… I am a very proud Ex-4H President. I used to raise goats. I grew up on a farm and I raised everything that walks, swims, or crawls. Sometimes when people are talking about getting urban chicken coops and I start telling them about taking care of baby chicks and making sure they’re getting enough electrolytes and water and how to raise them well, people are scratching their heads like, “how do you know?”. It’s because I literally raised hundreds of chickens. I love animals and I love 4H and it ironically made me a vegetarian. I’m excited for a day when I can have animals around again and they can be my buddies and hang out.

That’s such a good one.

Yeah! I used to raise animals. I miss it very much. I’m very much an animal lover. I’ve been a vegetarian for over ten years. I miss having goats. Another weird, quirky thing about me is that I have two cats and I walk them every day at the park. They know how to sit on command.

You can keep up with Laura with the links below:

laurapartain.com

instagram.com/lauraepartain

Also, check out her recent feature with Cinestill Film.

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