Interview with Melbourne large format photographer Kate Robertson

Gumnut Uranus 2014, toned silver gelatin photograph 495 x 390 mm

Gumnut Uranus 2014, toned silver gelatin photograph 495 x 390 mm

When, how and why did you become interested in photography?
I became interested in photography fairly early on. I was about twelve years old when I would go bushwalking with my dad on Mount Buffalo (North East Victoria, Australia). My Dad would bring his fathers Pentax SLR when we were bushwalking and I would photograph the landscape. I remember entering one of these photographs into a junior competition with the Bright Camera Club. I won the competition (I’m pretty sure I was the only contestant!) and was hooked on photography ever since.

Hazelnut Saturn 2014, toned silver gelatin photograph 495 x 390 mm

What influences you and your photography?
The people I meet within healing communities connected to the natural environment influence me. Many of these people are highly engaged in the work they are undertaking to nurture a more caring, humane and respectful society. It’s quite inspiring.

Influencing my approach to photography is the continual questioning and reassessing of what it means to make a photograph. Works that have inspired my photography include:

The series Tree Planting by Canadian artist Sarah Anne Johnson (exhibited at Julie Saul Gallery, New York in 2005). Johnson combined documentary style photographs, and crafted performing figures that she photographed, after she saw how naturally fact and fiction worked together to represent the collective sense of utopia the tree planting community achieved through a communal sense of purpose.
The book Rockaway, NY by American Photographer Roe Ethridge (published by MACK in 2008). Ethridge conveyed a positive and new approach to photography when the ubiquitous image was becoming so commonplace in society.

Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright’s theoretical writings on the significance and implications of shifts and overlaps in art and anthropological practices, including Contemporary Art and Anthropology, Between Art and Anthropology, and Anthropology and Art Practice.

Closer to home, I have enormous respect for New Zealand artist Lloyd Godman’s highly experimental photographic and sculptural works centred on environmental issues, and Australian photographic artist Janina Green’s conceptual photographic works (particularly her toned silver gelatin works).

It’s unusual for a young photographer to use a large format camera and chemical darkroom techniques rather than digital image-making. Why do you a large format camera and film?
While studying at RMIT in the late 1990’s, it was expected right from the start that we shoot colour transparency on 4 x 5 monorail cameras in the studio and black and white on 35mm and 120mm cameras on location (which then had to be hand printed). During this time, I built my darkroom in the back shed of my parent’s house so I could have all-nighter darkroom sessions before assessment time.

I’d say I’m intrigued by slow methods of photograph making in contrast to quick digital snapshots. I like the idea of slowing down the photographic making process within an image-saturated era. A large format camera and film enables me to do this.

Melon Sun 2014, toned silver gelatin photograph 495 390 mm

You are currently working on a number of projects, what are they?
A couple of months ago I finished the series Celestial Body Model for exhibition at Edmund Pearce, Melbourne. This series of works is currently included in the group show Transcendental at Galerie Pavlova, Berlin, until 1 November 2014. The photograph Pinhead Pluto from this series is also currently in the Bowness Prize at Monash Gallery of Art (and received an honourable mention!). Forthcoming is a curated group exhibition by Jake Treacy called Holy Lands at George Paton gallery, Melbourne, opening in October.

A side project I run with photo-artists Clare Rae and Ross Coulter called Slide Night is also hosting its next slide night at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in October. We showcase 3 slides each by 7 invited artists within a slide night format.

Are you planning any new work?
At the moment I am taking a break from making new work until early next year. 2015 will bring a new project and a different direction to my work, exciting times ahead!

Can you explain how you go about making your photography?
A lot of research is completed before I head out into the field while working with a community. I want to try and begin to understand their approaches and values. When I am out in the field with a community I really just try to take in the experience, focus on experiential learning and things that are happening but not necessarily seen. Sometimes I don’t even pull out my camera (35mm or large format) for the first day or so because the camera can interfere with the experience. It is back in the studio and darkroom that I use different photographic techniques to highlight the sensory modes of understanding that I experienced.

Kate Robertson outside her darkroom

You have recently had a solo exhibition Celestial Body Model, and your work is currently on exhibition at MGA Bowness Prize 2014 and about to be shown in Berlin. How important is showing your work in galleries?
Very important. For me photography is about materiality and physicality. The choice of camera, film, film development, paper stock, paper size and the way it sits within a gallery space are decisions made along the photo-making process to best convey concepts and ideas. When viewing other photographer’s work I always consider and reflect upon the choices they made in their photo-making process.

Can you name some Australian photographers you admire?
There’s too many to note! I’m admiring a few exciting journals and collectives though!
Unless You Will, Try Hard Magazine, Asia Pacific Photo Archive and the 2015 Melbourne Photobook Festival.

Kate Robertson in her darkroom

Kate Robertson

Kate Robertson’s The Photograph Explained

Monash Gallery of Art Bowness Prize 2014

Galerie Pavlova, Berlin