JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black and white photographs, framed in blond wood and mounted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are unique tintypes, made between 2006 and 2011. The prints are either 8×10 or 11×17; there are 34 of the smaller size and 4 of the larger size in the show. A single glass case contains 1 limited edition book with a tintype (in an edition of 10) and 1 gravure (in an edition of 25). (Installation shots at right.)
Comments/Context: Joni Sternbach’s surfer tintypes have been shown in small groups at various art fairs in recent years, and so will likely be familiar, or at least recognizable, for many collectors at this point. This show is the first in-depth New York exhibit of her work from this project, and so offers the chance to dig deeper and see a broader sample of these object prints. .
Sternbach is one of a growing number of photographers who have turned away from the digital revolution, instead looking back to the dusty catalog of antique photographic processes. There is a physical slowness to these efforts, a glorious rediscovery of forgotten chemistries and laborious steps, and an embracing of the nuances and unpredictabilities of chance elements. What is tricky about such approaches is that it is easy to make pictures that look self consciously old timey. What is more difficult is to find ways to make these old processes new and relevant once again.
I think the reason that Sternbach’s wet plate collodion tintypes have been so well received is that she has chosen her subject matter so effectively, finding a way for the resulting images to simultaneously look freshly modern and quietly timeless. Her athletic subjects (both men and women) stand in board shorts and wetsuits, with sun bleached hair and tanned skin, alternately holding streamlined short boards and huge double height long boards that tower overhead. They pose along rocky beaches and expanses of sand, with the power of the sea never far from view. As individuals or in groups of two or three surfers, they stare into the camera with a sense of controlled grace and stoic dignity. The images tell simple personal stories without being overly nostalgic; some square jawed surfers look like they could have stepped right out of the 1950s, while others have a strength and confidence that seems very immediate. Sternbach has deftly used this alternative process to document a subculture, relying on its strengths to help her capture both its goofy hilarity (mermaids) and its poetic honor.
In seeing more of these prints together as one body of work, I think the quality of the darkness comes through as the defining attribute. It isn’t so much that the photographs are sepia toned; it is the level of detail and boldness of engagement that emerges from the deep, rich tonality of the tintypes that is so unexpected. The process substitutes a velvety, thick atmosphere for the blinding light and immense scale of the windswept beaches, making the portraits surprisingly intimate and self contained. When all the pieces come together just right, the images shimmer back and forth between the appearance of history and the reality of vivid life.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at either $4400 or $6300, based on size. The limited edition book/tintype combination is $4500, and the gravure is $1800. Sternbach’s work has not yet entered the secondary markets in any significant manner, so gallery retail is likely the only option for interested collectors at this point.