Through the Lens of: Joni Sternbach

Through the lens of her large-format camera, Joni Sternbach peers into “Surfland”—the idyllic world she returns to year after year at the juncture of sea and land. Sternbach’s subject matter is surfers on their beaches; yet despite the spontaneity of the weather, tide, and subjects anxious to catch the surf, she employs a laborious 19th-century process—the wet-plate collodion—and embraces the unpredictable medium she must hand-develop on location.

“One of the most rewarding aspects of the medium is the immediacy of the image, like the Polaroid of yesteryear,” she says of her vintage process, which grants her contemporary subjects the rich, warm tones of a traditional method.

But how exactly does it work? After Sternbach positions her camera and composes the image, she retreats to a light-safe “dark box” where she coats a tin plate with collodion and sensitizes it with a bath of silver nitrate before placing it in the back of her camera. She makes the exposure while the plate is still wet, returns to the dark box to develop the picture, and then—with her subject watching—rinses her antiquated, one-of-a-kind image in seaside daylight.

Explore Contemporary Vintage Photography to see other photographers embracing traditional methods, including another one of our favorites, Sally Mann.

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