LARA PORZAK HAS JUST RETURNED from 10 days in the woods. The fine art photographer traveled from her home near Venice Beach to New Mexico, then to Colorado and, finally, all the way to New Hampshire making tintypes. “I’ll follow anybody anywhere if they’re doing tintypes,” she says, referring to a 19th-century photography style where chemicals produce an image on metal. Says Laura, “It’s one of the messiest things you can do.”
No matter the physical labor or volatile chemicals involved, Lara commits herself to the particular photographic aesthetic you cannot preview on the back of a digital camera. Using old techniques—from the Leonardo pinhole camera to the century-old daguerreotype to the 1960s Diana—she captures raw emotions, even spiritual sensibilities in grainy shades of gray.
“I have no fingernails left because I’m one of the last people holding onto the cliff of black and white film,” Lara reflects wryly. That devotion shows in her prints, which stand out with unmatched character in this digital era.
Lara creates photographs with an ethereal quality, as though she used some other worldly instrument to capture the essence of a particular time; “alchemy” she calls it. “The camera is this magical passport,” Lara says. “It gives you access to beautiful, intimate moments.”
When it comes to medium, Lara committedly works in black and white. “Color is distracting,” she says. In a photo, a bright shirt demands attention, but in black and white “you’re drawn to people’s faces and expressions.”
When asked what makes those monochromatic images so emotive, she ponders rather than giving a rehearsed answer. “Maybe it’s because of our dreams,” she says, considering aloud how so many dreams occur in 12 shades of gray; perhaps that means black and white images create a deeper emotional connection.
Film truly comes to life in Lara’s hands when paired with her particular eye for light and emotion. “Light inspires me,” she says. She describes two kinds of light—the natural that reflects and refracts, and the internal that remains unique to each person. While she used to think that natural light inspired her photography, she says, “Now I realize it’s the light in people. When I can get the two to match, that’s a great image.”
When selecting a tool to express her artistic style, Lara prefers the Diana. A plastic camera produced from the 1950s until the early-1970s, the Diana is a kind of toy once purchased in bulk and handed out at parties and fairs. Its plastic lens made for inconsistent image quality—a fallibility that hurt its consumer value but attracts Lara.
In all, she has more than 50 Dianas and has playfully named each one. “The plastic has degraded to different levels,” Lara explains. “Each has a different focus and each has a different focal point. You don’t know what that focal point is unless you name it and memorize it.”
She names most of her cameras after women, because, as Dianas, they already seem feminine. Brooke, for instance, has a focal point on the far right and takes its name from a maternity portrait Lara took of actress Brooke Shields. She names other Dianas after places, like Yosemite, known for its especially sharp focus. Then there’s Levi, which, like a charming but wayward child, Lara says, has “zero focus.” To keep track, Lara writes the name of each camera on the top of it. On a shoot, she’ll have several Dianas hanging from her neck and shoulders to make sure she gets the right shot with the right camera.
Lara’s enigmatic ability to use those plastic lenses to capture timeless images makes her a favorite among Hollywood A-listers looking for fine art wedding photos and portraits. All too familiar with posing for glossy, color portraits, Lara’s grainy, sepia-toned pictures offer something more intimate and personal. But Lara isn’t one to name-drop celebrity clients. She doesn’t even own a TV.
Her photos also reveal something about herself—a raw sincerity of character that shines through her work. She teaches children to use film cameras so they can understand artistic imagery. For her art, she willingly hikes rugged terrain, patiently sits through thunderstorms, and even gets charged by the occasional wild horse. The integrity of her commitment puts her subjects at ease, so that a photo of a child wearing a plastic mask looks simultaneously charming and moody, and newlyweds appear lovingly candid rather than artificially posed.
“My interest in photography,” she says, “isn’t just so people can remember what happened, but so they can remember how they felt.”
To see more of Lara's work, visit laraporzakphotography.com.