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!
From an artistic or emotional perspective, why shoot film?
That’s a tough question. 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. 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 with it a lot, but I when 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.
[A digital sensor is data] made of ones and zeros, which I think is a miracle in itself, and pretty cool, when you think about it. [Between] those ones and zeros, versus [film] with its layers of color dyes, the silver in the gelatin, and the mixture of the two, I find that I get better tones and colors out of the film. So, it’s hard for me to have a conversation about it with technicality 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 my work apart in search of better tonality, or shadow quality, or color, and so on and try to adjust things over time to get an image right where I want it to be. The more I keep digging into it, I find that it's got to be that film quality that only exists within film itself.
Do you remember the first time you saw a favorite TV show or movie on one of those super high-definition 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 you're right, I don’t want to be able to see the flakes of powder on someone’s face. It feels 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 the “feel” of film.
Well, the thing is that feel is [part] technique. Feel is material, feel is everything. Whether you’re playing a 100-year-old upright bass or a Fender from the sixties, or you’re shooting a Hasselblad that from the seventies or a Contax 35mm from the 2000s. The reality is that yes, you can 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, I go to a show, I load the film, shoot it, underexpose it and 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.
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 you pick up your instrument every day and practice; whether that’s a musical instrument, your voice, a camera, writing, whatever it is, 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, are all things 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.
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, they are all critical.
Let’s talk about pushed film. You mentioned it briefly earlier, and I noticed on a couple of your recent Instagram posts, you also mentioned pushed film there. Especially since Mastin released their Kodak and Fuji pushed preset packs, 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 people have been pushing film [for a long time]. People used to push plates back in the 19th century. The concept has been there. 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, and they look awesome.
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? 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, but T-Max was born 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, “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.
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. If I’m on a shoot, and the light’s not what I thought, then at that point, I'm at the mercy of whatever found light I have. I can’t necessarily think of a time where I thought, “I just want to push film to push film.” I would 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, in the [case] of digital, and I’ve never tried the pushed presets, I think a preset like that could be great for shooting a concert. 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.
I have one more question for you, and it’s a short one that I like to ask people. What is an odd or interesting fact that most people might not know about you?
I am a very proud ex 4-H 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 4-H, and it also 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! 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.