In 1856 Gustave le gray famously created one of history’s great photographs of the ocean. His work Brig Upon the Water directly captured the beauty and power of the ocean, and indirectly showed us the ocean’s culture. A master of combination printing and pioneer of waxed paper negatives, his image invites us to look seaward, toward an immense sky and a ship at sail. Romantic, yes, but the reality of 1856 suggests the ship would be transporting cargo or another important resource that helped society function and thrive. A picture of culture and an image of beauty.
Fast forward 150 years and you’re likely to find another photographer standing seaside, working with 19th century photographic processes while decidedly showing us 21st century culture. The photographer is none other than Joni Sternbach, who will present a lecture at Medium on Oct 26. Her photographs of surf culture stand alone in the field of photography—both fine art photography as well as the more focused discipline of surf photography. Surf photographs have a long history and a distinct vocabulary that is, at times, a foreign language to outsiders. Joni’s photographs of surfers eloquently build on this tradition while adding a dynamic layer to our understanding of the medium.
We caught up with Joni recently and thought it would be fun to pose a few questions, familiar to those who have spent time on surfing beaches, or immersing themselves among surf culture. Like photographers, surfers love places and equipment. Let’s dive right in.
Joni, what’s your favorite surf spot (to photograph)?
Well, I’m an east coaster so I have my spot in a dirt lot at Ditch Plains in Montauk that I love. However, I travel often and have been shooting at Rincon in California for many years and think that’s pretty damn special too. Nothing like watching surfers on those long lines of waves with dolphins.
Do you have a favorite board (again, to photograph)?
I love to shoot Olo’s and Alaia’s because their textures look pretty amazing in collodion, like Duke Kahanamoku’s. That said, I really love the iconography of surf boards. Like totem poles of the modern day, their logos (which read backwards) and waxy textures make for great subject matter in a tintype.
As photographers we’ve all had tragedy strike at one time or another. It’s awful as it’s happening but often makes a good story once enough time has passed. Surfers are no different, often facing life threatening accidents in the water that, once on dry land, carry the aura of mystery that we (non-surfers) can only imagine. On that note,tell us about an unforgettable wipeout you had, working with an unwieldy process such as wet plate.
I started shooting wet plate with a portable darkroom in 2004. Having a dark box that was light weight was pretty important. This way I could haul the gear myself and work alone if need be. I was introduced to an assistant at the same time, so we explored the process on the road together. We started somewhat close to home, in Staten Island. There’s a long stretch of beach on the island with lots of interesting detritus, so we set up and started shooting. I had some rickety folding table I had bought on the street and decided this would do to hold the dark box. Suddenly the weather changed as we were shooting and my assistant and I wondered if the wind could do some damage. At right about that moment, the wind flew into the dark box and lifted it up (silver tank included) and on to the beach. Things were flying everywhere!
Thank you, Joni, we’re so excited to have you as our guest at Medium this fall, and look forward to your upcoming monograph Surf Site Tin Type, which was an amazing success on kickstarter, congratulations!