The Deep Grey Sea: An Interview with Freediver and Film Photographer Katharine Kollman


Photographing underwater scenes on black and white film may initially seem like a strange choice. Why limit such colorful equatic environments to shades of grey? But after viewing Katharine Kollman's photos it all makes sense. As she told us, “It helps draw attention to new textures, to the way light is refracted differently under tons of water.”

In the absence of the familiar blues and greens, and with the addition of the film's gorgeous grain, her images take on a new kind of mysticism and beauty. Our eyes are drawn to the curious shapes of her subjects, both sea-creatures and her fellow divers, and we’re transported to another world entirely.

© Katharine Kollman

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got started with film photography?

I had the great fortune of being raised by two teachers, an elementary educator and an art department director. My father taught a variety of art classes at a local high school, including film photography and basic darkroom skills. Though this was not his preferred medium and he didn’t practice at home, I still spent time perusing the shelves of chemistry and enlargers in the lab as I waited for him to take us home after school. But I actually didn’t get my first film camera until I moved out of the house.

Through a series of funny encounters, I discovered what freediving was in a small library in Wisconsin. Growing up on Lake Michigan, we were always in the water, but this sport of breath-holding and deep-diving was so foreign and alluring to me, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Having deferred from grad school, I was free to quit my job and get on a one-way flight to O’ahu, where I had signed up for my first freediving class. I was terrible at it and failed miserably in my first attempts, but something lit up inside me and I knew this was something I desperately wanted to pursue.

I spent months, years now, training and practicing freediving with a community of dedicated and talented divers who took me under their wing as I became as enamored as they were. I felt pulled to express myself and all these new feelings and experiences I was having, and it was at this time that I discovered the work of underwater film photographer Wayne Levin. And something else lit up inside me, I knew I had to try.

A few years in, and a few flooded cameras later, Wayne is not only my greatest influence, but also a friend. I have found a medium that helps me express my emotions and celebrate the important individuals in my life. Film photography became the translator of my love for diving, helping me share and bond over this sport with other divers and artists alike. The two practices go hand-in-hand: both demand immense patience and mental resilience, and slow progress is the only progress. I would never be the creator I am today without the incredible people who have come into my life, who have helped and encouraged me with every step.

© Katharine Kollman

Your life of diving and photography looks very enviable from the outside. What does a typical day look like for you?

Honestly, it depends on the day. On a day off, or if I work in the evening, I’m usually up by 5 or 6am to prep my gear and cameras to dive, and to stretch. Stretching and flexibility are an extremely important part of being a successful diver, and taking a few minutes to do it every day makes a noticeable difference. I meet up with my buddies and we’ll be in the water for up to hours at a time, depending on what kind of diving we’re doing that day (line-diving and training, spearfishing, fun dive, etc). One of my favorite things resulting from this sport is the lifestyle; being an avid diver encourages healthy decisions, because it all leads to better dives. Good quality food, early to bed, early to rise, hours out in nature, often out of service and disconnected from devices - the good stuff.

Once we finish, my top priority is cleaning my cameras to protect them from the inevitable wear & tear of salt water! The cleaning process itself doesn’t take so long, but my mentor was extremely meticulous and passed his cleaning habits onto me - I’m always grateful for that. And then comes rest and recovery; freediving can be very physically taxing, so proper rest is necessary if you don’t want to be out of commission for another day.

When I work mornings, I typically won’t dive since conditions tend to worsen as the day progresses (tides change, wind picks up). But I do something active every day, so the alternative is surf, gym, or walking up the ridiculously steep mountain road that I live on. I also have a small room at home that I’ve repurposed into a darkroom space. Unfortunately it has windows, so I am only able to print once it’s been dark for a few hours (blackout curtains only do so much). Diving and printing on the same day can be exhausting, so I usually reserve printing for those off-days. I work multiple jobs, and while this usually errs on the side of messy, it allows me more freedom to build my schedule in a way that creates definitive windows for my creative practice. I’ve found that when I devote my “40 hours” to a single job, I feel burnt out and unstimulated. So, chaos it is.

What cameras and film do you like to use for your underwater photography?

There is not an enormous selection of film cameras designed to get wet, let alone withstand the pressure of hundreds of feet of water. There are a few point-and-shoots out there that are basically glorified disposables, and waterproof to ~15 feet or so…I’ve flooded a couple of them. The camera series that I rely on are the Nikonos: a series of progressively more sophisticated cameras based on the original “Calypso” design by Jacques Cousteau. Designated as an “all weather” camera, this metal behemoth is likely one of the most durable of any 135-format cameras out there. I think I could go on for a while, but suffice it to say, these cameras are beautiful and the only reason I am able to create the work I do.

As for film preferences, I’ve been going through phases. I use a variety of stocks because the ocean provides a variety of different physical and lighting conditions. Obviously, I have a staunch preference of black and white, but I base my stock decisions on the type of diving (reef, offshore), the underwater terrain, the time of day, and the desired look. When I first started, I only used Ultrafine100 and 400 for a long time because that’s what I could afford. Then I went through an HP5+ stage that probably lasted a year, because that’s the stock my father used to teach class. I’m glad I branched out, but I’ll always have a soft spot for those stocks that put me on this path.

© Katharine Kollman

Is there a particular subject that you love to shoot more than anything else?

When the opportunity arises, I love being able to shoot large marine life. There is nothing more humbling and awe-striking than being in the bottomless blue water next to a creature bigger than you can fathom. That being said, this is never something that is guaranteed - the ocean is fickle and unpredictable, and blesses you at the most unexpected times. Earlier this year, we caught word from some fishermen that there were sperm whales offshore. We bumped around in the worst chop almost 12 miles offshore in a 12-foot rib for four hours hoping to catch sight of the spouts, but no dice. But as we started to make our way back in - painfully, I might add - there they were.

Opportunities like this are few and far between, so my actual (and reliable) favorite subject to shoot is my friends and fellow divers. It brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction to create photos of my close friends doing something they love with all their hearts.

What do you love about shooting and processing black and white film?

I’m often asked why I choose black and white over color, and while I have a whole lexicon of reasons for this decision - it’s mostly sentimental. As I’ve mentioned, my father used to teach film photography and darkroom skills at our local high school. These classes were taught using exclusively black and white, so by continuing my work in the same medium, I feel closer to my father’s practice. I also heavily value understanding the tradition of whatever art you might choose to make, so in refining my skills as a black and white photographer, I see it as a nod to the origins of this medium. My way of paying homage, respect, etiquette, etc.

Shooting black and white in a meaningful way sometimes feels difficult - color is one of the five elements of art, and arguably, one of the most influential. That being said, Wayne Levin and his black and white work completely changed the way I viewed the use of color. I think black and white lends itself well to underwater landscapes, creating an even more unique perspective without everything cast in blue and aqua. It helps draw attention to new textures, to the way light is refracted differently under tons of water. It brings me an immense sense of satisfaction to explore my world in this way.

I also love the ease of processing and printing, as compared with color analogue work. I like to consider myself a patient person, but color printing takes it to another level. My father taught me how to develop black and white film in his high school lab, after sneaking me in during the summer months. It was six or so rolls I had shot during a visit home to see my family, and the process of working together to develop these photos made me feel so happy. He is so methodical in everything he does, and he helped me start to build good habits in this practice. I am still a huge amateur when it comes to developing and printing, but I’m always looking for more opportunities to learn from professionals!

© Katharine Kollman

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to the kind of photography you do?

I think my answer to this question could vary depending on the day you ask. I was having coffee with Wayne Levin, the godfather of black and white underwater film photography, and he told me, “the best photos I’ve taken are after the roll is done”. While not an uncommon sentiment among film photographers, it’s especially painful when you’re finishing up a three hour dive, shoot your last frame, and suddenly a pelagic manta ray swoops through as you’re kicking back in. Those moments are…agonizing.

A unique aspect of underwater photography as a freediver is that we aren’t able to finish a roll and pop another one in right away. Depending on the dive site, you might have a long kick back into shore, get out, go to your car, reload, and do it all over. You also need to take special care when opening and reloading a wet or damp Nikonos to prevent flooding. This means the 36-38 exposures need to last for a possible several-hour dive. You might say that one of my biggest challenges is self-control and rationing exposures, but these days I always leave 1-2 available on the kick back, in case we get any sort of surprise. The Nikonos is more traditionally used by scuba divers, who typically have multiple dives planned on a single boat charter, giving them the opportunity to shoot multiple rolls with more ease. I’m a little envious of that, but I like to imagine the judgment I practice for choosing photos now extends to other aspects of my life.

The other challenge is how variable the ocean is. Sometimes conditions (water clarity, visibility, current) just flat out suck for weeks at a time. This makes shore diving difficult, and the water isn’t very conducive to taking photos when visibility is 10 feet and there are particles all over the place.

© Katharine Kollman

Any exciting work coming up that you’d like to tell us about?

Yes, absolutely. I’m really thrilled about some opportunities that have come up for the rest of 2022. I have a feature coming out in the September issue of SilverGrain Classics, which is this really incredible publication that has been devoted to showcasing analogue photography for years. They reached out to me earlier this summer to ask for an interview, and I was dumbfounded, I couldn’t believe it. I’m extremely grateful for the chance to speak about my work, in print, on such a well respected platform.

I’m equally thrilled to announce my participation in an upcoming analogue exhibition that will be held in Hamburg, Germany this December 2022. The title of the showcase is Unstable Lights, curated by Fabian Wolf, who has taken on all the labor of curating an international show - on top of his full time day job - simply because he loves to do this and wants to support the community. I’m over the moon to have a second international exhibition under my belt, but I’m also wildly intimidated to be showcasing alongside some really incredible analogue photographers that I have admired for years.

Finally, I have tentatively begun sharing about a long-term book project I have been creating with one of my closest friends. We are continually shooting for this book as new ideas emerge, helping us to refine the themes and messages we hope to convey. This project is shot almost exclusively underwater while freediving, and I think it is some of my finest work yet, and has only been possible because of the creative chemistry my friend and I have cultivated over the years - I’m excited to share it when the right time comes.

We'd like to thank Katharine for sharing her story with us. To see more of her photography check out her Instagram and website.

written by alexgray on 2022-10-12 #people #ocean #b-w #nikonos #freediving #underwater-photography #katharine-kollman #wayne-levin


  1. nkollman
    nkollman ·

    Astonishing photos and such an inspiring interview!

  2. polaroidlove
    polaroidlove ·

    Beautiful photos, loved the ones with the whales!

  3. andonlyif
    andonlyif ·

    I'm so happy for you, Katharine!! ❤️

  4. patricko
    patricko ·

    Woow...beautiful photos.

  5. astonuts
    astonuts ·

    Very inspiring article, the b&w works very well here. Also I was quite surprised to see 400 iso was the choice in Intagram videos, indeed I thought 3200 would be the choice.

  6. niceweatherfor
    niceweatherfor ·

    This work is something else. I've never been so blown away by underwater photography, but wow!

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