New York-based photographer Joni Sternbach has been traveling the world for years to capture surfers in their natural habitat for her photo series, SurfLand. Employing the early photographic tintype technique, she continues to photograph any surfer who has a particular spirit she wants to preserve. We spoke to her about her process, inspirations, and what surfers are like the world over.
How did you get into photography, and when did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I studied art in high school and I went to a college in Vermont where I learned to spin my own wool and weave my own cloth. I studied subjects that I couldn’t in high school, like Irish poetry and life drawing—in short, I was a hippie. This experience set a tone, and after that I went to an art school where I continued as a fine arts major, and photography was a required subject. My second year there I realized I wanted to be a photographer; I had an “aha” moment. That was when I was about 20.
What inspired you to start the SurfLand project?
I had been photographing the ocean for five years prior, making close-ups of the ocean surface and kept returning to the same spot, which was a surf break. Over time, I started to change the frame to include more and mix things up a bit. One particular cloudy morning, the sun broke through and lit up the seascape like a Dutch painting. There were surfers in the ocean and I was on the bluff. The combination of seeing this amazing light and capturing it on film made me feel as though I had bonded with them. In this picture the surfers are small ambiguous figures at the bottom of the frame. This was my first interaction with surfers, and it inspired me to return to the ocean for the series.
You have subjects of all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders. What attracts you to a subject?
In Montauk, I just scouted for interesting-looking people. I wasn’t necessarily looking for pro surfers, just the any-man or any-woman. There is a vibrant surf community in Montauk and as the series grew it became important for me to include surfers people knew. Most times I photograph people I’ve never met before, just their willingness to work with me is reason enough to to include them as a subject.
What is it like working with the tintype process? What difficulties do you encounter?
Well it’s the most difficult thing to do besides daguerreotype. It’s a wet chemical, and must stay wet the whole time. A major challenge is weather; windy, overcast or dry, the process is weather-sensitive, so moisture, dryness, low UV, or too much UV can all affect it. But that’s also part of the fun. You learn to accept the challenge.
I see you’ve used the same process in other series, such as Shinnecock Days, and they look like they’re from another time. Was the choice to use the tintype process based on a desire to make timeless images?
I also used it in my first series, Abandoned. I was already shooting at the beach, and started looking more closely at the remains left along the shoreline, so I thought to use them as a way to create dreamy landscapes of another time. This antique process makes everything look old. But a good friend questioned me and asked, “Why use this old process to just recreate old-looking pictures? Why not talk about something contemporary?” I found surfing to be the perfect subject, mixing contemporary culture with an old process, while capturing a community.
Do you have any interesting stories or memories from shooting the SurfLand series?
I wasn’t very knowledgeable about surfing when I first started this project, but a couple years into the project I saw this photograph of the ‘first surfer’ in a bookstore and was blown away because it looked like one of mine, almost as if I had been channeling it. In 2010 I went to shoot in California and was introduced to Donald Takayama [the late pro surfer and shaper]. For his portrait he wanted to recreate the first photograph of a surfer. So at the beach he struck that same pose, and it was beautiful.
I see you’re still working on the series. What has inspired you to keep it going? I know you have already published a book of some of the photographs. Are you planning on doing another book?
I actually am working on another book, that will hopefully be published in 2015. I’ve wanted to go to Hawaii to photograph surfers there, as it is such a big part of their culture. That will be part of the next book hopefully. I feel that there is no real need to stop, I can do it in between other projects. It’s a fun project to work on, working with other people, especially now that it has gotten some recognition. It may sound crazy, but it can be magical when a group of people get together to work with me.
Do you have a favorite place to shoot? A favorite time of day?
Yesterday the forecast was cloudy, and I was happy to shoot because it’s nice to have overcast light, as there are no heavy shadows. I can’t shoot too close to the beginning or end of the day because I need UV light for the collodion process. I love to shoot in the morning, but I do that mainly with film.
One of my favorite beaches is The Pass in Byron Bay, Australia. They have incredible trees growing called the Pandanus Palm, with fronds filled with texture and shape right on the beach, which is not something we see in Montauk. Also in California there are gorgeous rocky beaches to shoot at.
Did you notice any differences between the East and West coast surfers? American and Australian?
In Montauk when I first started to photograph surfers, I was intimidated. I felt they owned the beach real estate and that I was an intruder. It was a challenging process. I didn’t know how they would feel about my large camera and massive amounts of gear. It took a while. It was a slow and steady process getting to know the community and to feel at home there.
In California, I wasn’t going back to the same beaches repeatedly when I was shooting, I was going up and down the coast. It was more difficult to find people who were interested in taking part, but as the project became more popular, more people became interested. I found using Facebook and Surfline to inform people about shoots was useful for getting people to pose. A friend hooked me up with instructors in La Jolla, and I would meet some people, photograph them, but then never see them again, which is interesting.
In Australia, I immersed myself in the culture for many weeks, and met people through word of mouth and by hanging around in cafes. I was introduced to an established surf community there, so it was an ideal way to meet subjects. The best wasy is to go somewhere for a length of time.
What have you learned through doing the SurfLand project?
I’ve learned how to be more still, both in taking pictures and in life. I’ve sort of been infected with the surfer disease (is there one?), although I’ve only ever had one surf lesson. A lot of people feel that surfing is a religion, and it’s true that there is a way surfers have of interacting with a landscape that has really synced with who I am.