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Joni Sternbach on portraiture of the ocean and its surfers

Joni Sternbach uses large format cameras (some of the earliest photographic devices) and early photographic processes to explore the present-day landscape and to make environmental portraits. Her series Surfland captures portraits of surfers in tintype (a photograph made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer).

I first encountered Joni’s work over Instagram a couple of years ago, and I was struck by her intense way of working and making portraits. It was intriguing and unusual to see someone using such antiquated methods in our highly digital environment. I was curious about her choices and about her relationship to water and to surfing. I spoke with Joni this month via email.

Louise Buckley: How did you start taking photographs?

Joni Sternbach: I studied photography initially as a fine arts major at the School of Visual Arts and later as a photography major, till I eventually graduated with a BFA in photography. I went on to get a Masters's at NYU/International Center of Photography (a now-defunct program) and started teaching immediately at NYU right after graduating.

I was just thinking about something that was said in an undergraduate photo class, in the mid-1970s, to what seemed like hundreds of students. They told us that less than 10% of all graduates would end up being photographers. The number was staggering. Sadly, I think they were correct.

LB: What did your education bring to your artistic practice?

JS: My education was varied and definitely had an impact on the way I work. I spent my first year in college studying Irish poetry, drawing, weaving, spinning, and singing. I learned how to spin wool, weave it into cloth, and sew it into clothing. The idea of creating something from scratch never really went away after I left that school. It appeared decades later in my wet plate process and was definitely a way of working that I could relate very well to.

LB: You’ve taught at ICP for over a decade, what did that experience teach you about photography and the direction it’s going?

JS: Teaching wet plate collodion at ICP made it pretty clear that digital photography was not the only game in town. Many people were interested in how to make their pictures and they did not mind getting their hands dirty (black paws) in order to do it. Film photography, or analogue as it’s now referred to, has a very strong following. Many wonderful materials have vanished since I began working with the medium but it seems like experimentation and abstract photography are now showing us what direction photography is shifting towards.

LB: You seem to mainly use large format cameras. Can you explain what draws you to this way of making photographs and if you ever experiment with different modes of working?

JS: I love working with large format cameras. Why? because they have a very big viewing screen and the quality of the image is just so appealing. When making tintypes I work with big cameras so I can have a large finished artwork. My images are the same size as my camera format.

That said, I live with a man who seems to be delighted by all camera formats and so I have many opportunities to experiment with a variety of camera sizes and formats.

LB: In this time when cameras are getting made smaller and with the goal of maximum efficiency and quickness, what is the reaction like to your camera when you’re making portraits? Is it a source of connection and conversation?

JS: Indeed, my working in public has been the source of many wonderful connections and conversations. It is also a type of performance, as I am on full view with a very extensive “kit” on the beach in mid-summer. People find the camera, the dark box, and all of the various things that make up my wet plate kit, very amusing and interesting. It’s part of the draw to attract new subjects and also doubles as free publicity!

LB: Your on-going project Surfland consists of portraits of surfers, and Surfboard is a series documenting surfboards. Do you notice any patterns or relationships between surfers and their boards? Can you share a bit about the projects and what draws you to the ocean?

JS: I definitely find a strong connection between surfers and their boards. I also believe that surfboards retain an imprint from their rider. They are symbolic metaphors as well as handmade objects.

Surfland began as an organic extension of my work Ocean Details. There I was, at the edge of the buff, high above the ocean focusing in one tiny rectangle of water, and one day, boom, there were surfers in my frame. I am from the Bronx, so I thought nothing of raising two fingers to my mouth and whistling out to sea at them with a smiling wave of the hand, asking them to “move over.” They did not…

My interest in photographing the water was initially very emotionally driven. I wanted to find a landscape that reflected that emotion. I felt the ocean, a place I had visited since childhood, was that landscape. Since those early days of Ocean Details, my work has acquired a more anthropological and political edge. Global warming, garbage, and pollution in our oceans, loss of species, disappearing coral reefs, etc., make the ocean a very political playground.

The Surfboard series was a direct growth from Surfland. Photographing people and their boards for over ten years, it was kind of a no-brainer to eventually focus on the boards alone. I did a shoot in France about five years ago that also solidified the power of the image of surfboards without people.

LB: I see a big connection between surfing and art, especially photography. So many surfers I know also have really strong creative outlets. The slowness of photography, the patience, poetry, the quietness that it can bring as well as an intensity, excitement, and unpredictability mirror the flow and energy of the ocean and of surfing to me. Do you notice this too? Do you surf yourself?

JS: It may come as a surprise, but I am not a surfer. I stand up paddle and love to be on and in the water. While photographing portraits of surfers I discovered several photographers. While the process I work with (wet plate collodion) is very slow, I don’t think of photography as being a show medium. In fact, when it comes to photography and surfing, action is the first thing that comes to mind.

LB: What can we learn from water? What can we learn from surfers and their surfboards?

JS: Water can teach us an abundance of things, and hopefully respect is one of them. I have also come to see the ocean as a metaphor for home and environment: as it covers over 71% of the earth’s surface, it both connects us and keeps us apart.

Surfboards, as vessels designed for ocean voyage, take a journey of unique repetition, revealing histories of human transportation, migration, food gathering, and pleasure.

With this current series, I am working towards the idea that surfboards can serve as a typology of sculptural totems. That they retain a human imprint as they reflect culture and class by drawing connections between materials, objects, and human experience Alone, surfboards are remarkable examples of functional design. As a group, they tell a compelling story about the evolution of a critical American art form.

LB: I’m drawn to your series, Ocean Details. Your photographs reminded me immediately of Vija Celmins’ work, as they share a simple composition of similar subject matter. Both feel to me like meditations while simultaneously being overwhelmingly beautiful. What artists/photographers/writers are you looking to?

JS: Vija’s work was a huge influence on my Ocean Details series. Over the last few years, I have been inspired by a wide range of works, from Meghann Ripenhoff’s cyanotype photograms made in concert with nature, to the black and white, self-portrait silver prints by Zanele Muholi. Often, however, I look to folks like Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, and Ed Ruscha when I need a jolt of something western.

LB: What is next for you? Do you have any upcoming shows or publications you’d like to share or promote?

JS: I have a current exhibit in Los Angeles, titled SURFBOARD that runs through 12/31/20 at Von Lintel Gallery, and my newest monograph, SURFBOARD is available through my website or Photoeye.


Thank you, Joni!

Images courtesy of Joni Sternbach

Louise Buckley is an artist, student, and enjoyer of water. She can be reached here.

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