Surf Site Tin Type, Joni Sternbach’s latest wet-plate excursion

We met a lot of amazing people at this years AIPAD gathering in New York City, especially Joni Sternbach who was signing her newly published book Surf Site Tin Type. Impressed with her unique angle on visual storytelling, use of antiquated chemical wet-plate processes, and fascinating subjects, we picked up a copy to review. Take a look at our latest ONWARD Book Review and don’t forget to check out our review of Andrea Modica’s As We Wait as well!

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Andy + Muriel , Jalama Beach, Lompoc, CA 2011, 8×10 Unique Tintype

The ocean has been a lifelong companion to Joni Sternbach. The pull of the water is palpable–her grandmother introduced her to the sea as a youth in New York, spurring her now successful career making portraits of the water and it’s landborne dwellers. Her work with antiquated chemical processes began in 1999 with studies of the waters’ surface titled Ocean Details, followed by Abandoned, focusing on the architectural remnants of human habitation on or near the ocean. Her latest book Surf Site Tin Type is the next step in what now seems a natural progression of imagery. In these pictures, Sternbach makes a great leap from making photographs devoid of people (albeit not of their effect on the environments) to ones where their presence becomes paramount.


Malloy Brothers, Malloy House, Lompoc, CA 2013, 8×10 Unique Tintype

Surfers are rhythmic and intuitive, motivated by the movement and temperament of the natural world. From hyperlocal to globally expansive, the activity turned into sport, the sport into a lifestyle. Fascinated by the itinerant nature of the surfers’ life, Sternbach saw in them a delicate balance of land and sea, assuredness and the void of infinity. Their lives are inextricably linked to the natural world, seeking to streamline an ever-evolving relationship. The tintype process lends an ethereal patina to the surface of the work, water smoothed by long exposure and skin made to look weathered and windswept. Indeed the surface of the photographs themselves have the same quality; the solidified liquid emulsion evokes a wave-like sense of motion frozen in time.

A product of eight years (2006-2014) of travel and laborious effort, the project took Sternbach to surf communities in Rhode Island, New York, California, Australia, and England.  The book itself was made possible through the generosity of the internet, an example of crowdfunding done right.  The tintype process is time consuming and limited in output to a single positive plate, among other factors that contributed to it’s fall from popularity in the early 20th century, but in Sternbach’s care it feels nimble and efficient. In the wrong hands the length of the exposure and development process the relationship with the subject can turn tense, but here she maintains a graceful balance of trust that leads to gripping images. For this project the wet-plate process truly shines, conceptually as well as aesthetically.


Kassia + Donald + Jen, Oceanside, CA, 8×10 Unique Tintype

The subjects naturally ease into their poses, leaning on their boards, each other or fallen trees, lying in the sand or in cars. There is a nod to antiquated images of exotic lands and peoples here, a somewhat unavoidable comparison. In many pictures the surfboards, monolithic and soaring, become another member of what appears to be a family portrait. There is an intimacy between rider and board, the thrill-inducing natural barrier between man and sea. They become more human as the pages turn; their owners more organic.


Dave, Dave’s Farm, Broken Head, NSW, AU, 8×10 Unique Tintype

Italian printers Damiani faithfully replicate the tonality of the original plates, a sign of their quality. The inclusion of short essays and texts by Lyle Rexer, April M. Watson, Chris Malloy, and Johnny Abegg all lend differing and informative context and counterpoint on the subjects, process, and history of surf culture and photography. At the conclusion of the book one thing is clear, you’ll want to go out and surf just as much as you’ll want to go out and take pictures.


Portrait of the Artist, Joni Sternbach, Campus Point. Credit: photo by Eric Taubman

Surf Site Tin Type (Damiani, March 24, 2015) is available for purchase on Amazon

About Joni Sternbach

Joni Sternbach was born in the Bronx, New York. She graduated from New York University/International Center of Photography (ICP) with an M.A. in Photography in 1987. She is currently a visiting artist at Cooper Union and a faculty member at both ICP and Center For Alternative Photography in NYC where she teaches wet plate collodion.

Her work is part of many public collections including the The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, France, St Louis Art Museum and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She is the recipient of many grants including NYFA and CAPS and the 2011 Clarence John Laughlin and 2010 Santo Foundation awards.

The following images are excerpted from Surf Site Tin Type (Damiani, March 24, 2015) by Joni Sternbach. Texts from the book by Lyle Rexer, April M. Watson, Chris Malloy, Johnny Abegg. All images are Copyright ©Joni Sternbach.

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