Capturing modern surf culture through a historical lens
By Joel Hersch
Calling Joni Sternbach merely a “surf photographer” doesn’t do enough to convey the types of images she creates.
Sternbach, who is based in New York, practices portraiture, and her subjects are the surfers she encounters on beaches around the globe. But it’s the photographic technique she uses that truly stylizes her work—the surfers pictured are cast in black, white and silvery hues, possessing a curiously luminous glow just behind the eyes.
Sternbach produces the effect by utilizing wet-plate collodion photography, a process in which an image is captured on chemically coated pieces of plate glass. It was invented during the 1850s and has become iconic for depictions of forlorn Civil War troops and historical documentation of the geological surveys throughout the American West. For Sternbach, however, wet-plate photography is a means of exploring surf culture through a unique lens. For the past 10 years, she has created large-format tintype photographs of surfers, which are collected in her book, Surf Site Tin Type, published last spring. Santa Cruz Waves connected with the artist to talk about the roots of her photographic study of surfers, her Santa Cruz shot that was up (NOTE FOR E: change depending on Nov. 15 result) for a prestigious London award, and the ways in which her work explores a modern culture through a historical lens.
What was your initial inspiration to photograph surfers?
When I began making photographs of the ocean, back in 1999, I was making these abstract, close-up details of the ocean’s surface. I had been working on these bluffs in Montauk, New York, and it turned out there were surfers in this narrow point of view that I was trying to explore and express. I actually whistled for them to get out of my frame. But then the sun broke through the clouds in this incredible way and I could hear the surfers give off these cheers of joy. It lasted about 30 seconds, but I think it’s one of the most incredible photographs I’ve ever made, and it was pure luck. As a result, I felt like I had this connection with these surfers who shared that experience with me. Four years later, I went back to that same spot and made my first surfer tintype, and I knew that this was a project I needed to begin.
What was the significance of the wet-plate technique for photography, and why do you work in this medium?
The big plus for wet-plate photography was that you could make it into a negative, so you could shoot onto glass and therefore make prints. This essentially turned photography into what it has been for the last 150 years. It’s a very seductive process for me because it’s so hands on. You’re bringing your own chemistry to the beach, mixing and coating your plate with the chemicals, formulating the photo you want to take, and developing your image on site. You’re really in control of absolutely every aspect of the image-making process from beginning to the end. The process is so elaborate that it engages a community on the beach. It draws people in, like an old polaroid—I love that aspect.
Has this work led you to bond with the ocean and surfers you photograph?
I’ve spent a lot of time at the beach and in the ocean since I was a kid. It was a place that my grandmother brought me often, so it’s always been an important part of my life. It’s always been a place that I’ve gravitated toward for answers to many questions. My idea to photograph it initially was to create a bond with this vast thing, and to turn it into my subject matter. I wasn’t drawn to surfers from the beginning, or their culture, in particular—it was that they and I inhabited the same space. I had this desire to create work on or around the ocean, and it turned out that photographing surfers was a pretty direct way to do that. Today I feel a much stronger connection and have gotten into standup paddle boarding.
One of the tintype photos you took near Santa Cruz this year was a runner up for the annual Taylor Wessing portrait prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. What did this mean for you?
It was a huge honor. I had submitted my work to them before and been rejected, and that’s hard for any artist. I made the tintype in February 2016 at Davenport Landing. It depicts surfer Maxwell Schultz, posing with his board and his girlfriend, Thea Adler. I’d never been in this exhibition before, so it was a real honor for me. (NOTE FOR E: TWEAK DEPENDING ON WINNER RESULT ON NOV. 15.)
How do you feel this style of photography bridges the modern world of surfing and a sense of nostalgia and history?
I feel like the surfer is somewhat of a new Western icon, almost a mythical being that has supplanted the cowboy. This is the same process used to document the Civil War and the Western geological explorations; the style of photography goes hand-in-hand with adventure. The images make me feel like I’ve discovered this long-lost tribe of surfing. It’s this crazy way of thinking about time and people and history. I think there’s this way that I’m photographing surfers that hasn’t been done before, but at the same time I also feel like I’m continuing something that began a long time ago. Sometimes you connect with something and you just feel, “Yes, this is right.”