Joni Sternbach : Tintypes

All tintype images are Copyright ©Joni Sternbach.

December 03 2015

What draws us to the sea?

It is a question as vast and ancient as the ocean itself. And as unanswerable as this question may be, there is a beauty in the pursuit. Fine art photographer Joni Sternbach has spent nearly a decade traveling the world with her large format camera to capture portraits of the sea, through a community of surfers that dedicate their lives to it. Now in it’s second printing, Sternbach’s collection of portraits Surf Site Tin Type is a collection of arresting portraits created using a wet plate technique developed nearly a century ago. We spoke with Sternbach to learn a bit more about her process and the history behind her work.

Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell us about what you were like growing up? 

I was not a particularly creative child, and I didn’t start making things until high school. My interest in art began there, and I had two really fabulous art teachers – Mrs. Dzirkalis, and Mrs. Brody. I only name them now because they were so encouraging and wonderful. They opened my mind to new ideas about art, music, and culture.

 How did you come to photography? 

I began college as a fine arts major and came upon photography in a required foundation course. I was shooting then on just some cheap 35mm camera, a Konica I think, lent to me by my father. My first “serious” photograph was of a cheesecake with a missing slice. I was enchanted by the banality of the subject and then by the entire darkroom process – developing the film and printing the image was like a practical magic to me, and I was instantly hooked on the photographic process. Now, with the Surfland project, I am most excited by the spirit of adventure and unpredictability that is typically inherent in on-location work. My studio becomes the beach, and my portrait “sitters” are incredible athletes in their own domain. The camera acts as a mediator between people I would never otherwise meet, and the dialogue around the entire process of making a tintype can be quite profound and personal.

The obvious question seems to be why tintype? The use of a wet plate process suggests a preoccupation with the process itself, and the value of processes in photography. Can you speak to your relationship with the physicality of photography? 

Oh gosh, it’s a loaded question with so many answers!

Tintypes are one-of-a-kind, beautiful objects that you can hold in your hands, turn upside down and look at from all sides. The process yields amazingly sharp results and once they’re varnished, they glow and you can gaze deeply into them.

Tintypes are direct positives on blackened metal. Because it’s a positive, the exposure time is shorter than if it were a negative, making it a practical material to work with when photographing people. The emulsion is hand poured, sensitized, exposed and developed all while the plate is wet. The process is hand-made, immediate and because the plates are fixed in daylight, I see the results right away. As do my subjects! Everyone loves the immediacy!

I learned how to make tintypes when I first started photographing the ocean in 1999. At that time the process did not seem to suit the subject matter, so I continued in film for several years. However, when I did launch into making wet plates full time, I wanted to remain close to the water. I began a project titled “Abandoned,” photographing architectural ruin along the shoreline. These first tintypes captivated me and allowed me to play with time and process in a way that photography does best. Historically, tintypes were more portrait-based. I liked turning the tides around, making landscapes in a medium known for portraiture and using the same portrait lenses for these landscapes. It’s a way to converse with history.

The relationship between the wet plate process and the aqueous environments of surfing and surfers is intriguing – what brought you to the water? 

My grandmother brought me to the water. I have been going to the ocean since I was very young, and the beach has been a family destination for as long as I can remember.

Prior to photographing the ocean, my pictures were narrative based, shot both indoors and out, but were not about our relationship to nature. They were meant to reveal emotional experiences, but I felt that staged pictures fell short conveying authentic emotion.

My decision to photograph the ocean grew out of this desire and I changed my practice from one that was more studio based to one where I went “out there” to make pictures. I started shooting in the winter, so I experienced a fair degree of bad weather. The worse the weather was, the happier I was to be out there shooting. Go figure!

Once I started photographing surfers with wet plate, the beach officially became my office. It was as close as I could get to reliving an aspect of my childhood, summer days at the beach with my grandmother.

Are there any artists you are particularly intrigued by recently? 

I am intrigued by artists using photography in ways in which it hasn’t yet been seriously embraced by the conventional art world. Klea McKenna’s Rainstorms and Rain Studies series of photograms of falling rain are quite beautiful and unique. Julie Cockburn’s hand-embroidered found portraits are bizarrely fresh, and have an almost painterly touch to them. It is so wonderful that there are more and more occurrences of photographers pushing the boundaries and limitations of photography and really creating new work in a medium that, despite being relatively young, has become quite exhausted.

You can purchase Surf Site Tin Type Here.

View more of Joni Sternbach’s work Here.