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Joni Sternbach’s love-hate relationship with wet plate collodion

September 27, 2016 // by Jaime DeSimone

Joni Sternbach is a native New Yorker, but she spends most of her time shooting landscapes and environmental portraits throughout the country and around the world, often along the water.

Her Surfland series featured in Retro-spective: Analog Photography in a Digital World captures portraits of surfers in Australia, England, France, and on both coasts of the United States. She uses large-format cameras and the historic wet-plate collodion process that must be prepared and developed on location. The nineteenth-century photographic process paired with contemporary subjects give the images a raw, timeless quality.

In preparation for her Art and Ideas talk on Thursday, October 20, we asked her about the process behind her work.

Joni Sternbach on Beach with Camera and Surfer
Joni Sternbach uses large-format cameras and the historic wet-plate collodion process to capture portraits of surfers. Image courtesy of Eric Taubman.

How would you describe your work to someone who's never seen it?

My pictures are direct positives on blackened metal made with the wet plate collodion process. Working with a hand-poured medium creates a distinct effect on the plate. It has a creamy, dreamy quality to it that I have never seen with any other medium. Because it is s direct positive, the image is backwards, further influencing the viewer's understanding.

What ideas do you explore in your work?

I think of my work as environmental portraits that explore ideas of history, culture, place, time, and timelessness.

Describe your relationship to analog photographic processes.

The process I work with is antiquated and predates the word "analog" being used.

Joni Sternbach Shoots Women Surfers
Joni Sternbach shoots a group of surfers. Image courtesy of Heather Hudson.
Joni Sternbach Wet Plate Collodion Image
"The process I work with is antiquated and predates the word 'analog' being used," Joni Sternbach says. Image courtesy of Jim Martin.
Joni Sternbach with Camera on Beach
"I have the best office: it’s at the beach," Joni Sternbach says. Image courtes of Chris Orwig.

What's the most challenging and/or rewarding part of working with your chosen medium?

Working with wet plate collodion is all about weather and preparation. The chemistry must be mixed prior to shooting, and preparedness is key. Getting to the designated location with all the moving parts in order signals that I am off to a good start.

I would say that I have a love-hate relationship with this medium. When it goes well, it's incredibly rewarding and the results are worth all the time and energy spent on getting just a few images. When it doesn't go well, it beats me up rather badly, resulting in bad plates and silver-stained hands.]

One of the most challenging parts is the gear and trekking with it to the location of choice. The most rewarding are the pictures and the responses that they elicit in my subjects. Once I'm on location and shooting, the pictures create a dialogue with a community that is lovely and infectious.

Take one photograph on view in MOCA Jacksonville's exhibition and share what you'd like a visitor to know about it.

The Dirt Lot triptych is a good picture to discuss. Typically, my work comprises a single plate. Combining images means creating a narrative and connection. The camera swings about 110 to 150 degrees, depending on my lens, and the dividing lines must be carefully considered in advance. It's technically challenging to get all three plates to have the same exact density (of exposure and development), as well as to have them line up correctly. Then there's the feat of making an interesting and compelling photo that makes sense in three parts. In this picture, I used the van as my initial dividing line and swung the camera in a westerly direction (for shadows mostly.) Sometimes, I use the same people in more than one plate, as I did in this photograph. 

Joni Sternbach on Beach with Two Cameras
"One of the most challenging parts is the gear and trekking with it to the location of choice," Joni Sternbach says. Image courtesy of Eric Taubman.

Where do you find inspiration?

In so many places, like in music, art, and literature, but for this body of work, I found it by the ocean. I spent years by the shoreline gazing into the sea.

What's your workspace like? When and where do you like to create your art?

I have the best office: it's at the beach. But when I am not shooting, I am working in my studio in Brooklyn. There I have a film/wet plate darkroom as well as great light for shooting. It's a place to varnish my plates and store them, as well as a place to look at them on white walls.

What is your next project?

I have some ongoing projects that have taken a back seat to this one. One is in the Midwest photographing windmills on each side of the 100th meridian titled Nebraska.

How will exhibiting your work at MOCA Jacksonville affect your career?

We will see. :-)

RSVP for Art and Ideas: Joni Sternbach on Thursday, October 20.

Joni Sternbach Shoots Surfer on Grassy Coast
"I think of my work as environmental portraits that explore ideas of history, culture, place, time, and timelessness," Joni Sternbach says. Image courtesy of Ben Barnick.

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