How often does it happen to you these days to go back over and over again to a photograph you’ve seen and wonder: How was it made? Very rarely indeed. And how often does it inspire you to describe it as made by hand? Exactly, almost never. But this is what happened when I discovered Joni Sternbach’s singular photographic series titled Surfland – evoking a feeling of both wonder and tranquility, an acute sense of time and place, a perfect imperfection that only handmaking and artistic intuition can achive, standing apart in this age of ubiquitous photography, and relating so well to the world of surfers and their spirit, their passion, their patience, their calm, and the certain state of mind it takes to ride above.
Using large format cameras and hand-poured plate collodion process, Joni Sternbach creates unique and strikingly beautiful portraits of unrivaled texture and depth along coastlines across the globe. She has been working on her ongoing series Surfland since 2006, documenting the surfing culture across the world, capturing and celebrating the diverse range and the way of life of people that are devotees of the sea. This is photography made by hand. It has soul. It’s one of a kind. There is something so extraordinary and mystifying about Joni Sternbach’s photography and I was thrilled that she could do an interview with me, giving me the chance to learn more about the artist and her art. Meet Joni.
Water Connection, 15.11.07
“Tintypes are handmade and
have characteristics that other methods
of photography do not. There is a magical,
primitive quality you cannot achieve
any other way. It is chemistry,
and the results cannot be totally controlled.
That leaves a lot open to chance,
and I think that is pretty spectacular.”
Joni, your tin-type portraits of surfers are remarkably different from the sort of digital images that have become the tradition of surf media these days. I think the best way I can describe your photography is that it has soul, it looks tangible, a moment captured in time. Not only that, but it also expresses a visual interest in this great subculture’s history and ethnography. What inspired you to embark on this project?
Before Surfland, I was shooting the series Ocean Details. These are large format, abstract seascapes of the ocean surface with a very narrow focus. I was positioned on a bluff ready to make a photograph when surfers found their way into my landscape. It turns out my narrow little perch was a surf break. At first I wasn’t so happy about these intruders, but then the sun broke through the clouds and cast the most incredible light on all these beings, and it seemed like we all shared a collective sigh of relief and happiness. I realized then that surfers are an essential part of the seascape.
Is collodion the closest to handmade photography as it can get, to “making” not “taking” a photo? Can you tell me a little more about this photographic process? And what is the most fascinating part of it? What about the most challenging aspect?
Tintypes are handmade and have characteristics that other methods of photography do not. There is a magical, primitive quality you cannot achieve any other way. It is chemistry, and the results cannot be totally controlled. Collodion has its limitations, and surprises. There are a lot of things you can’t necessarily prepare for or know that are going to happen – a lot of my shooting depends on the weather – it is a UV and temperature-sensitive process. That leaves a lot open to chance, and I think that is pretty spectacular.
Lone Surfer, 06.07.12
Are you a surf enthusiast? Why surfers?
I now think of surfers and the oceanic horizon in a similar way to the way we once thought of cowboys and the western mythology. The writer Trey Heighton describes the icon of the surfer as supplanting the place of the cowboy within the American imagination. Maybe it’s the spirit of adventure and the unknown that photographing surfers along the ocean’s edge brings each time I set out on a location to shoot.
How do you select your subjects? Are they difficult to photograph? The way I see them, these are adventurers, free spirits, wild hearts who don’t necessarily like to pose for a photograph. Catch them if you can, while in action. That’s how I’ve always considered surf photography until I discovered your one of a kind work. So how do you do it? How close do you have to get, physically, emotionally, mentally, in order to get a good shot? How do they respond to your camera?
Sometimes I go to a location with a few subjects in mind and scheduled to photograph, but most of the time, I find surfers as they are on their way in to or out of the surf. The tintype set up looks like a bit of a sideshow – usually beach goers are pretty intrigued to see what I am up to. The trickiest part of a shoot is getting my model to stay still for the fairly long exposure, especially when the sun is in their eyes!
Is there a favourite moment of the day for photographing on the beach?
The first shot of the day is usually a pretty good marker for what the rest of the day is going to be like. It serves as a test of the chemistry, the weather, and my mood! Sometimes everything lines up perfectly right at the beginning and that first shot turns out to be the best one of the day.
What lead you to photography?
Art in general.
Do you also like shooting on film? Would you ever consider a digital camera?
I love to shoot film, and I typically carry a Leica with me when traveling or shooting. I also work with digital cameras (iphone, go pro etc) and love the ease of digital photography, especially with Instagram.
You are a native New Yorker. How has New York influenced you creatively?
I grew up spending summers at beaches all over New York City, and began photographing the ocean off eastern Long Island in the late 90s. The energy of a city beach is so crazy and unique – the boardwalks across NYC are just ripe with photographic material.
Your series Promise Land, depicting the demise and destruction of homes on the eastern end of Long Island, is a stark and poignant elegy to the ghosts of failure that stalk the American Dream (and that’s even more relevant in the current situation of the country), and addresses the perception and significance of home. You are a photographer, you travel a lot. Where have you felt most at home? Do you think it’s important to feel that you belong to one particular place?
I feel most at home being and working in Montauk, Long Island. I had been working in Montauk for seven years before I started the Surfland project, so I had a pretty strong connection to its landscape and community. Over time I have watched the beach physically erode and evolve. I feel like I know its history.
In this time and age, you wish people appreciated more:
If you could be anywhere in the world right now (old or new location), preparing to make a photo, where would you want to be?
I am going to Hawaii very soon! It is a dream come true. For the past 11 years, it has been on my ultimate photography bucket list.
Kyuss + Rasmus, 11.03.14
photos: courtesy of Joni Sternbach