On a mild, sunny September day in 2007 I pulled up to Ditch Plains in Montauk, New York to check the surf and saw a woman setting up a very large, old fashioned camera. She had an assistant, lots of supplies, and she was taking a picture of a surfer on the beach. I came to learn that she was taking portraits using an antique process that dated back to the Civil War. I watched for a while with curiosity before paddling out into the warm Atlantic.
A few weeks later as I came in from a surf session she walked over and asked if she could photograph me. I agreed, excited to take part in the project. I had to stand as still as I could for a few minutes while she prepared the plates and took the picture–a bit of a challenge with the wind blowing my longboard every which way. After the picture was taken I watched with fascination as she swirled the metal plate in a large bin of the photographic chemicals and the image gradually appeared. She later gave me a print of the portrait and I now have a treasured keepsake from a summer of fun waves and beach campfires with friends.
I’ve since gotten to know the Brooklyn-based Joni Sternbach better over the past few years, and I find her photographs to be a perfect blend of nostalgia and modern day surfing. She has photographed many of my friends in Montauk, and the way she has documented the community here is incredibly unique and special. Joni has become a regular presence at Ditch Plains since she began her project, and already her work has begun to immortalize a time period in our lives the way only photographs can do.
I find that Joni’s portraits have a unique flavor because of her non-surfing perspective. She and her camera are observers from outside the subculture, entering with no preconceived notions. One thing that has struck me the most about her SurfLand series is how it transcends the hierarchy that sometimes finds its way into the local lineup; her selection process has led her to take photographs of beginners and pros, men and women, young and old. It’s not about what kind of board you have, who your sponsors are, how many trophies you have, or how photogenic you are. It’s this democratic way of representing the surfing community that has become my favorite aspect of her work. Everyone is portrayed with equal merit; just a surfer, a board, and the sea.
I recently had a chance to speak with Joni to learn more about her SurfLand project.
What is your art and photography background?
My art background dates back to high school. I went to art school at School of Visual Arts studying drawing and painting. I had to take photography as part of the requirements, and that was my first introduction to the field. I liked it so much that I graduated with a BFA in photography. Seven years later I went back to school to obtain a Master’s degree in photography from New York University so I could teach. I’ve been teaching since the 80’s; at NYU for over 15 years and now I teach workshops about the wet collodion process. I’ve done workshops in Pittsburgh, New York, and soon in Texas and Victoria, British Columbia among other locations.
Can you tell me a little about the process used in creating these portraits?
The wet collodion process dates back to the 1850’s, and it was the second photographic process after daguerreotype. It was the process used during the Civil War, however it didn’t last very long since it wasn’t very practical. The plate has to stay wet during the entire procedure, so it wasn’t well suited to the field. Then technology moved on to dry plate and film on plastic. Wet collodion was kept alive by Civil War reenactors such as Bob Szabo (http://www.cwreenactors.com/phorum/), and the equipment is also highly collectible. The process is so gorgeous and immediate; it has this quality that typical film doesn’t have because of its color sensitivities. It’s somewhat unpredictable, and sometimes you’re given surprises. Often the mistakes are really quite beautiful. It’s a very finite way of working that’s not very flexible, but it gives me the opportunity to create something different in this world of fast digital technology. Some call it the digital backlash, but that’s not the main reason I do it.
What got you interested in surfers as subjects?
I was primarily interested in making seascapes, but I seemed to always end up with all these pictures with surfers in them–in the water or on the beach. I eventually decided to pay attention to that. It was a bit of a twist of fate since I wasn’t particularly interested in surfers, and I didn’t really have an interest in surfing. One day while shooting on the beach in Montauk I struck up a conversation with another photographer. After chatting for a while he said he was going surfing so I asked him if he would pose for me. He didn’t really want to be in front of the lens, but I told him the lens was going to be several hundred feet away. After some prompting from his girlfriend he got down there on the beach and held still for about three seconds, and I ended up with this fantastic portrait, Lone Surfer.
Where did you first start photographing surfers? Where have you gone since then?
The first time I went to shoot I went to Ditch Plains in Montauk. I went to the first parking lot but there weren’t many surfers there, so I went to the second lot by the Ditch Witch food cart, too many people there. I then tried the third lot–the dirt one and decided to set up my equipment, bring a lunch, and hang out and see what was going on with these surfers. So I just sat there and observed. I didn’t know anyone. Eventually someone came over and asked me about my camera. He was doing some digital photography and had his own little computer studio set up under his umbrella. I asked him if he was a surfer and if he would pose, and he agreed. He asked me what he should do, so I suggested a way to stand. He looked at me funny and said, “That’s not the way you hold the board!” [laughs] So he came up with a more correct pose, and that was the first shot I made of someone on the beach. Eventually it attracted a crowd and it was an immediate hit. It was very encouraging.
How were you received by the surfing community at first?
I wasn’t so comfortable breaking in. I started asking more people to take their portrait, and many were saying no. I just hung out at the beach a lot because I figured it would take a while for people to get used to me. I ended up getting to know some of the regular faces at Ditch, and they were the beginning of finding my way into the community. There were people who would pose out of politeness, and then there were others who were more interested. I eventually started meeting people and saying hi to them. I was definitely an outsider and I didn’t really “get” it at first. I’m not a surfer, and surfing wasn’t something I grew up with or was around very much. It was kind of this foreign, California thing and I hadn’t really noticed surfing on the East End until around 2000, which is when I think it became more visible. I see the pull and the draw, but I didn’t realize that there was such a spectrum of individuals involved. These are people who are so passionate about the water, and they are a family of sorts. It’s been wonderful and I feel surfers are very incredible. I feel honored and blessed–not that I’m someone who goes around saying “blessed” all the time–to have met so many wonderful people because they’ve really changed my life. Eventually people started coming up to me to ask to have their picture taken, and sometimes they come back more than once. People have even brought me gifts for getting their portraits taken.
What are some challenges to working on the beach with all the equipment?
There are so many. Sunburn, spilled chemistry, the wind. The biggest challenge I ever had was at county line in California where I had to climb down the cliffs with my gear to shoot on the beach there. I have never done that before and probably won’t do it again. Even at Rincon, it’s physically very challenging hauling all that gear down the path. But if the weather’s beautiful and you’re there at the beach it’s so fabulous that it doesn’t matter. I think that’s why Ditch worked out so well for me since it was easy access for me and close to home.
How did you become involved with Heather Hudson’s film Women And The Waves?
I was at Rincon just doing my thing; going to a location, being there, and seeing what happens. I met this woman [Heather Hudson] who was interested in what I was doing, so I had her pose for a portrait. In the parking lot we had a conversation and she mentioned she was working on a film [Women And The Waves], and was wondering if we could somehow work together. She suggested that I should photograph some of the women in her film. I traveled down to San Diego and photographed some of the ladies, including Linda Benson at Solana Beach. Of course we had the worst weather–wind and rain–and I had to have my assistant stand behind Linda’s board to prop it up in the wind! I would talk on the phone regularly with Heather and we hooked up again later on and I photographed more of the women in the film out in California. It was this wonderful opportunity that arose organically.
What would you say was the most rewarding aspect of this project to you personally?
I’d have to say the surfers themselves. Meeting a community of people that has reached out and included me. That has been really wonderful. They broadened my existence as an artist, and that’s pretty good. I can’t say landscapes have done that for me.
What are some other projects you’re working on or have planned for the future?
I am working on two other projects, back and forth. I’m currently photographing teenage girls from the Miss Shinnecock teen pageant over at the Shinnecock Reservation. I’ve been working on that for the past year.
I’ve also been an artist in residence for CLUI (www.clui.org) in Wendover, Utah, and I’m going to be continuing on working on the project called “The Salt Effect.” It focuses on this huge ocean that has disappeared over thousands of years ago. It’s a focus on the absence of the ocean, and I’m trying to relate that to the other projects I’ve been doing.
Joni Sternbach’s book SurfLand can be found at Photolucida and Photoeye bookstores online. The book came to be after Joni won the Photolucida Critical Mass book award in 2007. SurfLand was featured in the MoMA store, and she has appeared in museums and galleries around the country including the Peabody Essex Museum. Her work has also been featured in Surfer’s Journal, Club Of The Waves, Water magazine, ESM Magazine, and ESPN.com among others. To see more of her SurfLand photos and some of her other work, visit her website at JoniSternbach.com.