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Photographer Joni Sternbach is Remaking History

By using centuries-old photography techniques to capture modern surfers

It's a Tuesday morning in New York City. Photographer Joni Sternbach parks her pick-up truck in front of her studio tucked away in a former industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, and begins unloading the gear from her most recent shoot. She opens the double doors of the building's freight elevator and begins piling in clear plastic bins, large light-tight wooden boxes, tripods, two giant camera bags, crates filled with glass bottles, beakers, funnels, and a cooler filled with various chemicals. Taken out of context, one might confuse the contents of this elevator with those of Walter White's RV, but what Sternbach is cooking up is much more creative (and far less sinister).

Sternbach captures images using a 19th century photographic process known as a wet plate collodion tintype, which involves coating a dark lacquer tin plate with collodion, sensitizing it in a bath of silver nitrate, inserting it into the back of a large format view camera, and finally exposing and developing it—all while the plate remains wet. In other words, it's a lot harder than sliding open the camera app on your phone and snapping away.

While this medium is being revitalized in the artistic cache of many contemporary photographers, Sternbach's approach is unique. She's spent the past decade shooting portraits of surfers around the world. She published two books, Surfland (2009) and Surf Site Tin Type (2015), which are filled with stunning imagery that feels untethered from time. Sternbach kept her tintype portraiture local at first, mostly shooting regulars around her home break in Ditch Plains, New York and other New England spots. Since then, she has expanded her focus to California, Byron Bay, Biarritz, and Cornwall, and has shot iconic surfers like John Florence, Jordy Smith, Tom Curren, Dave Rastovich, and Robert August.

Many of the surfers in Sternbach's tintype images pose with longboards or retro craft, making it even more difficult to tell when the photographs were taken. Upon close inspection, the only identifiers are often subtle, like a small logo on a surfboard or wetsuit, which reveal that her work is contemporary. However, the antiquated aesthetic is only part of the reason that Sternbach was drawn to photographing surfers using the tintype method.

"The wet plate collodion process is completely non-manufactured," says Sternbach. "As a kid, I learned how to spin my own wool, crochet and weave my own cloth, and sew my own clothes. The start-to-finish process is incredibly rewarding, and it gave me a sense of ownership over what I was creating."

While the process of preparing and developing the plates may seem painstaking, it has a number of unique benefits beyond the striking aesthetic of the images it produces. According to Sternbach, the time and care it takes to produce one photograph allows her to connect with her subjects in a way that modern photography methods seldom do, and the more comfortable her subjects become, the more intimate and interesting the images tend to be.

Sternbach's subjects are often surprised that she is not actually a surfer herself, but whether or not she knows her way around a 5'10" thruster doesn't seem to matter much to the many publications and galleries that have taken notice of her unique surfer portraits. Her images have been featured in National Geographic, in a solo exhibition at the Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles, in a group exhibition at MOCA Jacksonville, and received 2nd place in the National Portrait Gallery's Taylor Wessing Prize in London.

"Never setting foot on a surfboard has actually helped me realize the project in a more guileless way," says Sternbach. "I've had the opportunity to discover and engage with a community that I now feel a profound connection to."