In a world where photography is easier and more immediate than it has ever been, Joni Sternbach has swum against the tide. The instagram generation has reduced photography to a momentary distraction, where evidence is often more important than experience. Unfortunately, the evidence is mostly narcissistic: snapped, filtered, retouched and shared with little thought or consequence.
In contrast, Joni’s photographic process is more like painting, or sculpture with light. Pixels are abandoned in favour of lacquer and emulsions. Texture and contrast are the result of precise processing and a deep understanding of the fundamentals of both photography and light. For her ‘Surfland’ series Joni used 19th century tintype — a process where the photographic chemicals are applied to a plate by hand, exposed via a vintage, wooden camera, and developed before they dry.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Joni Sternbach has breathed new life into surf photography using classic, direct positive techniques. Her images are more than portrayals of surf culture. They capture an essence, both of the subjects and their surroundings, creating new worlds of their own.
We caught up with Joni to discuss work, life, surfing and photography.
Hi Joni, where and how are you?
Hello Evgeniya, right now I am in Brooklyn, NY writing you on a rainy morning.
What was the last photo you took — and what did you take it with?
Well, my last shoot was kind of epic in that I had the opportunity to work with both Robert August (from Endless Summer) and Wingnut (Endless Summer 2). These two legendary surfers were both in Montauk for the 50th anniversary of Endless Summer and some friends arranged for us to meet and make some pictures. They were pretty entertaining. Rascally Robert A. was very funny, lots of jokes (mostly dirty) and Wingnut was delightful, charming and fun (he even carried our heavy gear for us). They were negotiating their celebrity on the beach with all their fans amidst the chaos of trying to pose and hold still for a 1/2 second exposure with the wet plate process. Challenging, I’d say!
Can you talk us through your favourite shoot in the past year?
One of my all time favorite shoots in the past year has been with complete strangers (now friends) in Santa Barbara. I flew out there in 2013 and rented a place for a month. A facebook friend (and surfer) got in touch and was keen on working with me. He told me about this ranch that he would like to invite me to and that I would find it the quintessential California experience. And I did! He was very good at creating a lot of mystery around it. He told me it was where the mountains met the sea and that there were horses and that he’d invite some of his pro surfer buddies too. He wouldn’t even tell me the exact location till the night before. So, me, my husband and assistant drove up there first thing in the morning and met him at the entrance to the ranch. We hung out there for about an hour or so while the horses were attended to and then we finally made our way up the hills to look for a place to set up and shoot. When my facebook friend, Greg told me about the ranch I conceived an idea for this shoot with a surfing cowboy. Greg convinced me that he was the man for the job, so we set up the camera, chemicals and portable darkbox, got our horse and model in position and made a tintype. As we were doing this the light was changing and I switched directions with the camera in an attempt to make a diptych of Greg on horseback with his surfboard and also include more of the ranch. In order to do this everyone on each side of this diptych needed to stay in position. Just try telling a horse that! As I was coating the plate, Greg’s surfer pal, Oliver showed up with a couple of cool hats and sat on the fence to chat to with Greg. This serendipitous moment ended up being the right side of the diptych. On the left were the two actual cowboys and girls with their horses balancing out the frame.
Your photos have a really powerful, timeless quality. What attracted you to early photographic techniques?
I’ve loved historic processes since I first studied photography as an undergraduate in art school. I’m interested in the intersection of old and new and how when combined artfully, they can create a dialogue about the past in a contemporary way.
Do you use any digital kit or is everything shot on large format cameras?
My digital kit is an iPhone… if I have time to use it.
Being a surf blog, we really loved your SurfLand collection. What draws you to the surf lifestyle?
I was drawn to the surf lifestyle through my love of the ocean. I have been going to the ocean since childhood and it’s a destination that I feel very comfortable with. The Surfland series was really a natural extension of my photographing at the shoreline for the last 15 years. I like to say that surfers are inevitable, they’ve been in my (large format) camera frame since 1999 and it only took me three years (meant ironically) to make a picture with them in it and feel that we had a connection.
A more philosophical question… who has inspired Joni Sternbach and why?
I’ve been inspired over the years by so many people, but in the world of photography, Richard Misrach and Hiroshi Sugimoto have both been a powerful influence. They have both conceptualized the gaze into the outside world and given it meaning and resonance. They’ve taken the idea of the infinite and made it finite and real. They both deal with the transience of life, and the conflict between life and death, however it’s all resolved in a minimal landscape.
If you could conjure a dream shoot where would you be and who would be there?
Well, my big dream is to go to Hawaii to continue this series. It’s a missing piece for me, especially considering the documentary side of the project. I guess I wouldn’t mind photographing Kelly Slater and some other really well known surfers as well.
Thanks! How can people connect with you and fine out more?
Well, I have a new book in the works: SURF SITE TIN TYPE due in Spring 2015 and published by Damiani Editore. I seem to be very connected to the online world, so people can follow me on instagram and twitter @jstersurf. I also have a blog, Through a 19th Century lens, http://jonisternbach.tumblr.com/ that gets ignored from time to time and Surfland is on Facebook. Don’t forget the website too! www.jonisternbach.com
Photographs: copyright Joni Sternbach 2014, all rights reserved