Oahu-based photographer Katharine Kollman’s love of photography is intertwined with her obsession with the ocean, the Lake Michigan-born creative frequently taking her camera with her whenever she free dives. It all kicked off following her taking a free-diving course, and fast forward four years later, and she’s got a portfolio that captures all the glitz and magic of the ocean, with Kollman aiming to create, “otherworldly images that pull the viewer into a new perspective – to show them that these almost alien landscapes in fact exist within our own world, accessible to us in the space between our breath”.
For this week’s Frames, we caught up with the free-diving extraordinaire to get the deets on island living, her craziest experiences while out in the water and more. Check out the full chat (and some of her shots) below and be sure to follow her on Instagram here.
I grew up in the Midwest, about a mile from the beaches on Lake Michigan. Both of my parents were teachers, and my memories of childhood are running buck-naked through the glacial waters of the lake picking up beach glass and fossils like our mother taught us to.
It’s beautiful to experience each distinct season, but I realize now just how harsh our winters were. I currently live in O’ahu, having come out here on a whim to take a freediving course. What was supposed to be six months turned into over four years, and I feel extremely grateful to be spending time learning and growing in such a beautiful place.
Although my father taught film photography at a local high school, my first camera was a Nikon D300 when I turned 16. I dabbled in digital for some years, but it wasn’t until I came out to Hawai’i with my mother’s Canon Rebel Ti that film started to creep in.
When I began learning to freedive, I became enamored, obsessed even. It was all I could think about, all I wanted to do. I was blessed enough to have been taken into a community of talented and kind divers who let me train with them, and who quickly became close to my heart. Seeking a way to express these emotions and celebrate my friends, I began to look into underwater photography.
I stumbled upon the page for the Nikonos Project, and subsequently, the work of Wayne Levin. Light bulb moment. I was so moved, so touched by the photographs that Wayne composed, I immediately and desperately wanted to try working with this medium. I began using various underwater film cameras that are basically glorified disposables (and flooded a few), before finally investing in a Nikonos camera.
Based on the original designs by Jacques Cousteau himself, these vintage cameras are gorgeous and resilient – little metal behemoths designed to withstand hundreds of feet of pressure. I am infinitely grateful to have found a tool to help explore and share the emotions and visuals that swim around inside my brain.
Obviously, I love to shoot underwater, preferably in the ocean, but I’m really content in any body of water. Whenever possible, it is a wonder and a delight to shoot the marine creatures that inhabit our vast oceans.
However, the ocean is fickle and answers to no one, and you are never guaranteed to encounter those larger-than-life animals. With that, my favorite – and reliable – subject is my friends and fellow divers. Being independent of gravity, in suspension, helps us feel a sense of freedom and creativity in the water that is hard to replicate on land.
I’ve found that I have the best creative chemistry with my female friends that I have been diving with for years; we know each other’s limits well enough to know when to push and when to turn in, and that confidence and comfortability cannot exist with everyone.
I think I’m still figuring out my style. Despite being at this for a few years, I still feel like a newborn in some ways; I have the technical skills to take these photos, but learning how best to translate what I see and feel – that might take another few years.
I’d like to image myself creating otherworldly images that pull the viewer into a new perspective – to show them that these almost alien landscapes in fact exist within our own world, accessible to us in the space between our breath. Working with other talented divers allows me to explore this relationship of humans to nature within a culture that seeks to alienate us from those roots, from our origins in the water.
Ultimately, freediving has given me the abilities to see a small part of the world beyond the tip of my nose, to understand that there are connections running like rivers between us all. I hope to convey the importance of this intimate interconnectedness to others.
The most wild experience I’ve had with photography was this past spring, and on my birthday, miraculously enough. I was visiting some good friends on another island for the week, and we typically spend as much time in the water as possible when we’re together. We were already 30 minutes out of the harbor when we got the message that some fishermen had spotted sperm whales a few miles offshore…an hour south of us.
It didn’t take much discussion for us to rush back to shore, speed south, and put back in at a different harbor. The ocean was choppy, and we spent a painful few hours running up and down the coast looking for spouts, but no dice.
Eventually, we decided to head in after a long day, and just as we turned – spouts. We got to spend an hour in the water with a small pod of sperm whales, just us three. It still doesn’t feel real.
Describing what I enjoy most about the photographic process is likely to change depending on the day you ask. After an encounter like the one I just described, I’ll tell you that I love it because it allows me to share these once-in-a-lifetime experiences with people close to my heart.
When I get a roll developed and show the results to my friends, I’ll tell you it’s the way they react with excitement upon seeing the photos of themselves doing something they love. After spending a weekend printing in the darkroom, I might say that I enjoy the patience and devotion it requires of me, the physicality of bringing the photo alive with my own two hands.
I think ultimately, I enjoy it because it is a vessel for me to share and connect with others about the things I see and experience in this short life we are gifted.