Physical Grain: The tales behind the (film) photographs

Physical Grain
Physical Grain. (screenshot)

Story-based and film-centric, Physical Grain is a breath of fresh air in the crowded forest of online photography communities.

While not the first project to focus on the stories behind the images, the execution and focus set Physical Grain apart. Each photographer’s own words tell the tale of their image with the focus or angle of their choosing.

The brainchild of Ray Larose (also responsible for online maritime-focused travel magazine Salt), Physical Grain accepts only submissions made with traditional film, and is compiling a searchable database of hardware, techniques and labs from the technical details they collect with each submission.

“I was tired of the ‘click and runs’ of Instagram and similar sites. I wanted a platform for people to ‘sit at a table’ with the photographer and discuss a single image in detail,” Larose says. “I didn’t see anything like this out on the internet, so took a gamble to make it happen.”

The Image, Deconstructed, probably the best-known site with a similar mission, focuses on photojournalism and uses an interview format to explore the thought process behind each image. “The Story Behind a Photograph” is a buried section on The Photographers’ Gallery, offers less technical detail and publishes only once per month.

What elevates Physical Grain is the focus on text from the photographers.

“It’s more about the story here and the image is secondary,” Larose says. It’s easy to get him talking about the stories he’s most interested in:

“Emotional. With a splash of technical. I wanted to know what led up to the photo, or the bizarre thing during. But I also want to read the technical difficulties or adventures in some. Like Albany [Katz]’s pinhole. Just knowing wildlife were photographed in the image, but never seen in the result, is amazing and adds a new element to the photo.”

Even the name tries to evoke this by placing “physical” — in the sense of active or laboring (“The act of creating the image. The day leading up to and including the shot. Or the adventure of developing,” Ray says) — before “grain” — a nod to the chemical structures composing the finished object.

The site launched with 26 stories on the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21, 2016) and immediately began to generate buzz. It will publish a further submission each week going forward and the community will, hopefully, continue to grow with positive discussion.

“The purpose is to discuss the image and story, so if someone is bashing an idea, they’ll get the comment removed and a warning,” Larose says of the community aspect, which is the linchpin of his idea. Without positive interactions, the whole thing could unravel quickly.

Larose plans to curate the submissions lightly and expects to publish most or all of what he receives. A note on the Contact page says that “At the start of this project” only film photographs will be accepted, but Larose says that in the future he might accept digital if the film submissions start to run out. “I don’t want to do that unless I have to.”

I was honored and excited to be invited to submit a photograph and story of my own for inclusion at launch. I’m humbled by the company I’m surrounded by and thrilled to be among them. I submitted a 2015 photograph I made in southeastern Colorado, Sugar City Breakup. You’ll just have to click if you want to read what I wrote about it.

Larose hasn’t finalized rules for subsequent submissions from previously-published photographers, but said he’d likely set a minimum time between publications of 90 to 180 days. As of this writing, there are already submissions enough to carry the site will into 2017, and several arrived while we chatted via Twitter.

Take a moment to visit the site and read a few of the stories; I’ve read them all at least once already, and probably will again.

Instagram: @physicalgrain
Twitter: @physicalgrain
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Sugar City Breakup
Sugar City Breakup, 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)