In 2006, Joni Sternbach — a fine art photographer living in Brooklyn, NY — hurried to set up her 8×10 camera on a bluff overlooking the beach in Montauk. Hoping to capture a dramatic sky, she noticed a distant group of surfers in the water. Hearing their collective cheer as the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight shone onto the water, Sternbach directed her camera toward them to record the moment of nature coming together. From that moment on, Sternbach has traded in her small-format camera and isolated darkroom, and started traveling around the world to create one-of-a-kind tintype portraits of contemporary surfers using the nineteenth-century wet-plate collodion process with a large-format camera.
The craft of making wet-plate collodion pictures, or “tintypes,” is elaborate and dirty work. The silver nitrate used to sensitize the plates can oxidize on your skin and form a dark brown stain. The process is a finicky one that necessitates patience, experience and a touch of luck to make a good plate. It requires a portable darkbox or tent to sensitize and develop your plates in while on location. The plates are the same size as the back of your camera, so if you wanted a large plate/picture, you must have a large camera.
A dark art, the craft of collodion carries a bit of old-fashioned magic. There are potions and elixirs that are known to stain fingers and have a strong smell. There’s a dark box with a cloth of mystery and enchantment. There’s a feeling of anticipation and exhilaration as each plate emerges from the fixer. The sense of collaboration is palpable, as Joni and her subjects both wait for the image to clear, to see if each held up their end and made a worthy photograph.
Her new book, Surf Site Tin Type gathers the worldwide surfer community together in a series of fascinating portraits that celebrate surfing as a sport and way of life. The included gallery features selects that Joni Sternbach was kind enough to share with Whalebone, as featured in Issue 04: The Photo Issue.