When Laura Partain was 17 years old, she got her first professional gig shooting a wedding and realized she could make living doing what she loves. Since then, whether she’s backstage taking pictures of musicians in Nashville, Tennessee or photographing her grandfather Curt on his pig farm in Southern Illinois, Partain’s work stems from an emotional connection to her subjects and subject matter.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up.
Laura Partain: I was born in Houston, Texas and lived there until I was 16. After that, my parents decided to move me and my brothers to Southern Illinois. I usually tell people I spent half my life in Texas, half of it in Illinois, with a few months in L.A. to work for a photographer after I graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Then I moved here to Nashville, where I live now. I more or less flipped a coin for Chicago or Nashville, two cities where I felt I could work creatively in and turn photography into a job. Nashville won out, mostly because it was warmer, but also because I’m really drawn to shooting music, and Nashville was a better place for that.
DY: When did you start taking pictures?
LP: Around 16 or 17. I was born in 1990 and because of my age and the way technology was progressing at the time, I started off with a digital camera. When I was in high school, I took a photography class and made some less than impressive images, but I really loved photography.
When I was 17, we had a little art show in my small high school cafeteria and this lady walked up and said, “Oh, I like this photo you took of these trees!” And trust me, it wasn’t good. She asked me how much it cost and I said ten dollars. So she bought it and then said, “So, would you like to shoot my wedding?” And it went from there. Ever since I was 17, I’ve shot for money, whether it was wedding or portrait work. Realizing that I could turn it into a career that I was passionate about is what really got me into it.
DY: You started shooting with a digital camera, but the bulk of your work now is on film. How did that transition come about?
LP: I don’t think I’ve always this overarching interest and passion for shooting film, but when I went to college, I started to realize that most of my favorite photographs both historically and what was being made at the school were being shot on film. The digital images started to seem less interesting to me, so during my first semester at school, I got a 35-millimeter camera and just started shooting and shooting and shooting. I took a lot of film-related photography classes. I also took a class about antiquated processes that taught you how to shoot on sheets of paper or glass or tin like they did in the 1800’s, so I just absorbed as much of the analog process as I could. I think for me, I started shooting film because I preferred the aesthetic. The colors, the tone, there’s a feel to it that digital just can’t have by default of what a digital camera is. It feels really timeless.
DY: You mentioned that you like to shoot musicians, but you also take a lot of rural images. Is there a connection there?
LP: There’s a funny dynamic in my work. There are a lot of music and musicians, but then there’s also a section titled “Rural.” I have very strong interest in both of those things. I don’t know if there’s a connection between shooting the guitar player of a band and photographing a pig farmer, but I just have a lot of passion for shooting musicians but also shooting out in the country and photographing farmers.
DY: Why do you think you’re drawn to shooting rural places and people?
LP: I really grew up in the country. In Houston, we were right outside the city limits in the last bit of country before it’s swallowed up by the urban. I grew up around cows and horses. I was the 4-H president, and I raised goats and cows and chickens and guineas and turkeys. I wasn’t the best at it; they all became my pets. In Illinois, my grandfather is a commercial pig farmer. So growing up around it, it’s a part of me, and I can connect to it and understand it. And that’s part of what makes a great photograph: going into an environment where you have an understanding of the subject and who they are and what it’s about. Whether it’s going backstage at the Ryman and talking about guitars or I’m out in a field with someone who’s raising beef cattle and we’re talking about cows, it’s just about being able to connect.
DY: Do you think about how you’re representing rural places or people in your photos?
LP: That’s a great question that I honestly haven’t thought about it all that much because I’m mostly taking pictures of people I know. The goal of a photographer is not to create a false environment for the people we’re shooting, or to put them in a space that feels untrue to who they are. In a lot of my rural photography I’m taking pictures of people where they work, or in their backyard or in a field right by their house. Ultimately, with environmental portraits, the viewer makes the last call.