By Mary Elizabeth O’Toole
Collette Robertson’s photography reflects her love of being in and on the ocean, both in her professional life as a marine biologist and as an avid all-season surfer based in the Lawrencetown surfing community. Robertson works primarily with analog techniques (film) and is always exploring different photographic processes. She has tried dry plate, paper negatives, cyanotype, and Polaroid, and more recently started combining digital and analog processes.
Robertson got her start in photography as a young child when her mother, a visual artist and print maker, gave her a Crayola camera. “I loved it right away and from that point almost always had a camera,” Robertson said. “I got more serious about the art when I took an intro to dark room class from the School of Photographic Arts in Ottawa (spao.ca). What I appreciated about their focus is the emphasis on learning historic techniques and processes before digital technologies.”
Largely self-taught, Robertson calls herself a traditionalist when it comes to photography. “I believe that an understanding of things like aperture, shutter speed, and light sensitivity are essential to the art of photography, and you learn those really well with film,” she said. “When you master those basics – and how they are integrated—you are able to better create the images you want. There are more logistics with film, which makes you feel more connected. I think the main reason that analog photography is making a comeback is that people want that more tactile experience. 35 mm cameras are great for that. They tend to be much less complicated, and don’t usually even need batteries.”
Robertson had resisted moving to digital. But In 2022, she began experimenting with digital, driven at least in part by the desire to enhance her skills in surf photography. “Digital never really appealed to me but I am now seeing the benefits,” she said. “I started doing surf photography with film cameras designed to go underwater. One big challenge is that when you load a roll of film, you are limited in how much you can adapt to things like light changes, which happen a lot on the water.
“Now I use a digital camera with water housing, which has more flexibility. I can change settings on the fly and even capture video” Robertson has also starting using Photoshop and other digital tools, combining digital images with analog images. “I used to be a snob against PhotoShop until I took an online course on using Photoshop to prepare images for print. Now I love it as a tool.”
Robertson’s inclination to more traditional approach is reflected in her images. She described how her style has evolved. “I have always preferred black and white, even as a kid. I find that colour can be distracting. I love the textures and tones in black and white. It lets you focus more on the image.” She enjoys all aspects of photography including film developing, which she does at the Halifax Community Dark Room (2482maynard.com/dark-room1).
In April, Robertson had an exhibit at the Rose and Rooster Café, along with fellow surf photographer, Rita Goldfarb (rgoldphotography.com). Robertson showed both digital and analog images in what she called “an unintentional series of local female surfers”. She has plans for more work in series.
“I am still trying to find my voice, but I am drawn to photographing people. I prefer directed more than candid and often have an image of what I want to capture. I’m working on my portrait skills because good portraits draw you in and can make you curious. They can tell you so much about the subject but also lead you to want to know more. Sally Mann’s portraits demonstrated that kind of an eye and skill.”
You can find Robertson’s work on Instagram @saltboxfilm and @saltbox.media. Her website is currently under development at saltboxmedia.ca. This fall, she will return for a second year as a participant in the Surfside Studio tour.