Artist Interview: Joni Sternbach

Korduroy contributor Johnny Abegg sent us a video he made with New York photographer Joni Sternbach while she was staying in Australia’s Byron Bay last month. Joni is a world renowned portrait and landscape photographer using large format camera and film to capture the depth and grandeur of the world around her.

Describe your background in photography.

My background in photography starts with my interest in drawing and painting. As a fine arts major in art school and the eventual realization that I really really liked photography and that I could make and say more with a photographic image than I seemed able to with drawing. I ended up switching majors, graduating with a BFA in photography and went on to complete my Masters later on, because I really wanted to explore what it meant to be a photographic artist and to teach.

Why did you start shooting large format photography?

I was shooting medium format, narrative style imagery prior to moving to large format, landscape based photography. One reason was that I wanted to make platinum palladium prints (ocean details) and needed a large format negative to do that, as it’s a contact print process. The other reason is that the Ocean seemed to be this great metaphor for emotion; the surface was like a theater, one day it played calm and smooth in ripples, the next day turbulence and storm in dark waves. All this seemed better understood in a slow and meditative way. I spent a good deal of time looking at the ocean, rather than capture and move along.

Describe the the process of shooting your portraits from choosing subjects to the technical side of preparing and developing your images.

Most of my subjects in the SurfLand series were met by chance and randomly selected. They were strangers on the beach, there at the same time as I was. My method is to introduce myself, or sometimes my assistant will ask a surfer if they are interested in posing. As you can see from some of my imagery, I look for more than a pretty face. There’s no one thing I can say that I seek. It could be someone’s face, hair, or surf board or even their wet suit.

If they agree to pose, I briefly explain the process and that it takes time. Usually I make just one image of each subject. Working with a 19th century process comes partly from a desire to connect with the history of photography, but the immediacy of this process also it lends itself so much to this project. I think of it as part theater and part craft, as there is so much interaction and collaboration between myself and the subject while being such an intensely physical process.
My exposures range from 1/2 second to 5 seconds, depending on where I am, the time of year, the lens and light in the place where I am shooting. A 1/2 second exposure means that if the subject blinks, their eyes will appear blurred and I would consider the image ruined.

The chemical process is as follows :

  1. At the darkbox but in the light, I coat the plate with collodion, pouring it, waiting a bit for it to set and then sensitizing it in a bath of silver nitrate (that’s in the dark). It remains in the bath for at least 3 minutes and during that time I pour my developer into the developing cup and get the dark box ready. When the plate is sensitized, in the dark- I place the plate face down in my camera back and leave the darkbox.
  2. I return to my subject, refocus if necessary and remove the ground glass back and slide in the camera back, remove the dark slide and take the picture.
  3. I return to the darkbox and develop the plate. In the light I rinse the plate and fix it with my subject looking on. At this point we evaluate the image.
  4. The last step is to rinse after fixing and then I pour some glycerine on it and place it in a box till I get home and can wash it.

What is it about the surfing lifestyle that intrigues you?

At first I was not particularly intrigued by Surfers, just intimidated. The seemed to have a special status on the beach and I felt as though I might not be welcomed by them. As time passed I became more comfortable taking up so much real estate on the sand. As I got to know Surfers better I realized that these were people who knew how to make themselves happy. Now I am in my 5th year into the project and what continues to amaze me most is their relationship to the landscape, their intense connection to the sea and how that plays itself out in everyday life.

What’s next for your SurfLand series?

Once the project was underway, I looked into the history of surfing and discovered its Hawaiian roots. There’s that first photograph of a surfer in Hawaii, taken circa 1890, that I was astounded to see. It looked so much like what I was doing. I am very inspired to photograph in Hawaii. Getting the chemicals there however, is an obstacle, but we shall see.

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