1.) Are you a self-taught photographer?
My art background dates back to high school. I went to the School of Visual Arts and studied drawing and painting. Photography was a required course. I liked it so much that I switched majors, and 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/International Center of Photography.
(photograph by Michael J Rovnyak)
2.) How did you move away from modern camera technologies to start using the tintype process?
I have always loved historic photographic processes. I learned to make wet -plate collodion tintypes at a weekend workshop one summer in 1999 with John Coffer, a wet plate artist and teacher that hosts workshops on his upstate farm. After this initial introduction, I guess you could say, I was hooked.
One of the most rewarding aspects to the medium is the immediacy of the image, like the Polaroid of yesteryear. Collodion requires that you coat your plate each time you make a picture. It’s all done by hand, so basically, you are making your own film. This is slow photography at its best. This enables me to work outdoors at a slower pace. The result is a beautiful, handmade, one-of-a-kind object.
3.) Many of your photographs are very ocean-centric. What is your connection? What is it about the ocean that brings you back to it as a subject for your work?
The ocean played a big role in my childhood. My grandmother had a beach house in both Rockaway and Long Beach, and each summer my cousins and I would spend a lot of time there.
When we arrived, we could smell the ocean from blocks away. We could barely contain ourselves long enough to sit down and have lunch, because we were so desperately excited to get there. The water still has this immense pull for me. From the boardwalk to the beach, my pictures try to address our physical and ephemeral connection to the ocean.
The Sea/Sky series followed. Arranging the frame with a minimum amount of water and a maximum amount of sky was a way for me to continue working in this landscape that I loved.
SurfLand is a direct consequence of these two previous bodies of work. It began in the same location, Ditch Plains and is still a place I return to over and over again.
4.) When you are working on the SurfLand series, what is involved with the process of making a tintype, and how would you describe your creative process?
The SurfLand series is a body of work where chance, spontaneity, tide, wind, and weather play a huge role in my picture taking process. When I arrive at a specific location to take pictures I often do not know if I will have a willing subject and how people will respond to my camera, darkbox and chemistry.
The process is laborious, time consuming and requires the cooperation and collaboration of my subject.
- When I first began the SurfLand series, finding subjects was my first goal.
- Once that’s done, I pose the subject and compose the image.
- Once the camera position is established and corrections are made, I go back to the dark box, while my assistant waits with the subject. I coat the plate with collodion and then sensitize it in a bath of silver nitrate and then place it in the camera back.
- I then return to the subject with the loaded camera back and (while it’s wet) hope that the subject hasn’t gotten distracted or moved completely out of focus.
- I place the camera back in position and then remove the dark slide and take the picture. A typical exposure time ranges from 1/2 second to 3 seconds.
- I then return to the dark box and develop the picture.
- After it’s developed I rinse it in daylight and fix it while the subject is usually watching. I store the fixed plates in a plate box that stores them safely till I get home and can wash them.
So the procedure is part laboratory and part performance as I navigate between the camera, subject and darkbox.
5.) Tell us about some of the specific book projects you’ve done and the inspiration behind them in your career such as your SurfLand book, Face to Face Ocean Portraits, and Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort?
Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort was first an exhibition that my work was included in at the Museum of Modern Art. The curator chose several pieces from the show, including mine to be in the book.
The author, Huw Lewis Jones, of Face to Face; Ocean Portraits, saw my SurfLand show at the Peabody Essex museum in Salem, MA and felt that my work fit in with his new book about people who engage with the ocean in a variety of ways.
SurfLand was a Critical Mass book prize award in 2007. The result was my beautiful monograph.
6.) Speaking of your book the Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, when it comes to the American Dream – how would you redefine it compared to what the status-quo says? What do you think is missing?
I think Pleasures and Terrors speaks to the differences between the baby boom generation and the generation that preceded it. This show looked at the contemporary American family and culture of the 1980’s and the artist’s who critiqued it.
At the time, ideas of marriage and motherhood were issues that concerned me. My pictures were meant to be an insight into the darker side and used as a playful mockery on these topics, while also challenging the viewer.
I think that alternative perspectives are exactly what’s missing in the idea of the American dream.
7.) As a professional photographer whose made her passion her business, what words of advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
There is talent, and there is tenacity. I am not sure that the former works that well without the latter.
8.) What is the greatest thing you have learned about life through photography?
I think the best thing that I have learned about life through photography comes from working on the SurfLand series. By chance, I have met many amazing people who have introduced me to other amazing people. Amidst incredible surf landscapes, and through the aloha and good will of so many surfers, I have travelled to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and have had fulfilling experiences with many of the subjects I have met.
9.) Do you have any causes that you are passionate about?
Of the many causes that I care about, the ocean, the landscape, the environment, the plight of the Native American have all come to realization in my work.
10.) What’s next for Joni Sternbach in the near future?
I am currently working on a series entitled Promise Land, depicting the demise and destruction of homes on the eastern end of Long Island. Done in a documentary style, this body of work addresses a local view on the effect of the current economic crisis on real estate, the landscape, and the perception of home.
11.) Where can people purchase / view your photography work?
Pigment Prints from the SurfLand Series are available through Soulcatcher Studio in Santa Fe, NM http://www.soulcatcherstudio.com/
My tintypes are available though:
You can view my work on my website: http://www.jonisternbach.com