A Conversation with Photographer, Joni Sternbach

For the final profile in our series with Boxed Water - where we introduce you to women whose work is predicated on the health, education and art surrounding and inspired by our ocean waters - Arts & Culture Editor, Nora Gomez-Strauss speaks with surf photographer, Joni Sternbach.
Publish date:
Water Connection by Joni Sternbach

Water Connection by Joni Sternbach

Thank you to Boxed Water Is Better for supporting this series. We love this sustainable alternative to plastic bottles, and their mission to give back to the planet. They are supporting beach cleanups across the country, so we want to support their efforts. Plus, our readers can enjoy 20% off their first purchase with code THEFOLD20.

Today for the final post in our series with Boxed Water, Arts & Culture Editor, Nora Gomez-Strauss profiles the work of a woman whose career is intimately woven into the culture of the ocean waters, artist Joni Sternbach

The sound of waves breaking and the taste of salty air, a surfer stands still with their board as a photographer peers into a large-format camera. This is not your typical description of a photography studio or darkroom as tintype photography merges the image-capturing and the developing process, and photographer Joni Sternbach brings the 19th-century operation to a beach backdrop. What follows is what Joni describes as “old-fashioned magic,” with images that evoke the earliest known of surfers and surfing.

Today, most of us use the phone screen as our viewfinder in pursuit of photography’s instant gratification, but Joni’s process is one of patience. A tin sheet is coated with collodion by pouring it on by hand and then bathed in silver nitrate, where it remains in darkness for a few minutes. It is then placed in the back of the camera and ready for exposure that can range from ½ to 5 seconds (as her subjects try their best not to blink). Developing of the glass plate image takes place in the dark box on site, as the images transforms, sometimes with Joni’s subjects watching the wonder along with her.

The New York native’s love of the ocean is evident in her work, which she generously shares with the world through her Instagram account. Sternbach is able to capture both surf culture and adoration of the sea through the stillness of the early photography practices she’s embraced. While much of modern surf photography centers on capturing the graceful motion, Joni’s work is based in portraiture, capturing the powerful presence and stillness of the surfers, harkening back to the golden era of surf photography of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, with a nod to the earliest surf images of the 19th century. It is clear that Sternbach shares that same special relationship with water that her subjects do.

Catalina (Mate) by Joni Sternbach

Catalina (Mate) by Joni Sternbach

How did you first become interested in photography?

This may sound strange, but I had an epiphany kind of moment when I decided to be a photographer. I was in art school studying drawing and painting and photography was a required course. After 1 ½ years of fine arts, I switched majors and decided somewhere between 21st and 23rd street on Third Ave. that I was going to be a photographer.

What led you to focus on surfing and the ocean?

Photographing surfers was an organic continuum of my earlier work at the water’s edge, photographing details of the ocean surface and later the division between sea and sky. In the Sea/Sky series, I made one very important photograph during an incredible light event on the ocean with surfers in it. Being there, experiencing that moment with all those surfers in the ocean made me think that we had a connection.

Because I often return to the same location, I went back to the same bluffs four years after that photograph with my wet plate gear and by chance ran into a surfer who was willing to pose for me. It took only that one picture to know that I had begun something new.

I originally began photographing the ocean because I was looking for an emotional landscape. I had been shooting more narrative based work and felt that constructing photographs was no longer an authentic way for me to convey emotion. 

How has your upbringing in New York City influenced your work?

That’s a very good question! Initially, I photographed people in their environments in the city, in the subway, on the streets, pigeon keepers in Brooklyn. As time passed, I became more interested in the idea of what it meant to be a landscape photographer and being more directly involved with the environment. Maybe one of the reasons that I was drawn to the ocean, besides my grandmother Nellie, was those Bronx beginnings and the need for outdoor space and time.

Harteau Family Portrait by Joni Sternbach

Harteau Family Portrait by Joni Sternbach

How do you choose your subjects?

In the beginning, I let my subjects choose me. I felt that my camera and set up were curious enough to draw onlookers and that the conversation that ensued would/could lead to a portrait. Later, I began asking people. Later than that, when the internet picked up, social media helped spread the word about where I was and gave people a chance to come to the beach, see what I was doing and to think about participating. And once a significant body of work was born, I wanted to photograph the people who help contribute to the history of the sport.

Are there surf photographers, either current or from the past, who you admire?

There are many surf photographers I admire, especially many of the older ones, Leroy Grannis, Jeff Divine, Ron Church, and younger ones like Grant Ellis and Sara Lee.

Ha'a by Joni Sternbach

Ha'a by Joni Sternbach

What draws you to the early photographic process, as opposed to today’s “fast photography”?

I chose to work with wet plate collodion because it is an instantaneous, handmade, unpredictable, beautiful and fun process. The bottom line is that I can see the results right there in front of me, on the beach. It’s a one-of-a-kind, grainless positive done in the moment, on location. My subjects see their image clear right in front of their eyes. At the moment when I pour the fix, the bluish image that looks like a negative becomes a positive. It’s a very exciting moment. Most people gather around to watch the mini spectacle of photography.

Your popular Instagram account stands out not just for its beautiful images, but for its contrast in a feed full of digital, and often iPhone, images. What interested you in bringing your work to the platform?

I began using Instagram when it first started. I loved the funky filters and it was nice to have an alternative platform to FB for sharing pictures. Because it is image-driven, it really appeals. I have enjoyed sharing my travels and finding inventive ways to photograph my complicated process.

What are Instagram accounts you enjoy following?

Many of my artist friends are on the platform like @davidemittadams@cherylestonge but I also love to follow surfers @haakeaulana, @corina_rose and surf-related magazine, @trimhawaii.

Do you have any plans for your widely beloved books?

I am actually hoping to publish a new book based on my time in California and the intersection between surfers and cowboys. Fingers crossed!


This content series was brought to you by Boxed Water, a company whose mission and commitment to reduce plastic use close to our heart. Boxed Water is better than plastic, better for you, and better for the planet. 


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