07.06.15 #2 Jan, Ditch Plains
unique tintype, 8 x 10 in.
Wet Plates and Wetsuits:
Joni Sternbach's Photography
Nineteenth-century wet-plate media such as tintypes and ambrotypes marked a technological revolution in imaging, and were once the predominant type of photography. Joni Sternbach now uses these practices and tools as an alternative photography that defies digital vision. Just as engraving, lithography, and letterpress were once important modes for mass communication that have become fine art media, wet-plate is also called upon for its aesthetic properties—especially those that mark differences from the present electronic coolness.
Sternbach’s tintype works are physical, especially in contrast to ghostly digital images that are mostly optical phenomena. Her tintypes always possess an uneven chemical trace such that it is possible to see the image situated on top of the metal sheet. In some exhibitions, Sternbach will display an image both as a tintype and as an inkjet print (as in the two works of 06.09.18 #8 Angelika, Bettina & Leslie in this show). The differences are striking, especially as our eyes grow accustomed to relative contrasts, and how each of these media presents imagery. One might say that we are printing shadows in the archival inkjet prints—the inks represent relative darkness and are deposited over the white paper in this digital medium. The tintypes seem truer to photography’s essence, as light itself is given physical form in silver crystals that palpably reside on the plate. The emulsion bears the immediate (as in no further mediation) recording of luminous conditions—as close to a photographic “truth” as we are likely to get. From our perspective in the twenty-first century, photography is the medium of infinite reproducibility, but the tintype exists solely as an original (its image can be reproduced only through re-photography). By contrast, digital photography exists as a dynamic abstraction from its inception. It’s nearly impossible to talk about anything original especially as digital photos have no inherent expression. While documentary veracity is one of the widely accepted tenets of chemical-process photography, digital imaging is defined by its mutability. Through new scale, contrast and touch-ups Sternbach seems to ask us to evaluate our assumptions about photographies new and old.
There is a poetic confluence between Sternbach’s chemical medium and her surf subjects. The effects of salt permeate these works—it coats the bodies and mats the hair with it’s invisible, stiffening weight. Beyond the subject, salts solidify the image that congeals with the evaporation of the liquid photographic chemicals. The result is an atmospheric unevenness. Like mudflows on the Martian surface, the remaining salts are artifacts of a liquid presence that reference and magnify the fluidity of her ocean images. This artifact is all the more remarkable as much of the photographed water is captured in the slow exposures as a blurred, ambient froth.
Tactility is also heightened in many of these works with the presentation of the surfboard as a plane within the picture plane. The board wax (used by surfers to improve their grip) also operates as an analogous emulsion and the artifacts of sand, dings and scratches seem to inform the personalities of the board bearers. It’s tempting to read a board’s relative raggedness, seen in 07.09.22 #3 Gillian or 07.05.04 #4 Rich , as markers of experience. In all of their other variations (longboards, fish, hybrids, wood, fiberglass) the boards seem as unique as the individuals that hold them.
The look of wet-plate photographs inevitably appear to situate them in the late nineteenth century just as Polaroids bespeak the 1970s or high-definition video marks our own time. Part of the surprise in experiencing Sternbach’s works is realizing that we are looking at images and people from the present; fiberglass boards and elastic polypropylene wetsuits confirm our initial suspicions. We are destabilized because we usually experience wet-plate photographs as historical images, examples include pictures of the American Civil War, Edward Curtis’s portraits of Native Americans and Victorian ethnographic investigations. The edge distortions, short depths of field, warm-grey tones and static poses and stares we’re used to seeing in colonial photos of African or American natives uncannily become displaced to our time in Sternbach’s work. An especially compelling temporal dislocation is 06.10.08 #8 Ryan , who seems a Civil War soldier with a board (Johnny don’t surf!) While, as their titles suggest, Sternbach’s images are undoubtedly portraits, they also function as a kind of ethnography. The surfers certainly constitute a subculture; their tribes are bound by activity and location, but also by a lifestyle of being on-call for the next surge. Such existence stands in stark contrast to the idealized toniness of the nearby Hamptons or the normative suburbia on the rest of LI. Those at Ditch Plains’ rocky shores are islanders of a different sort—their bodies speak volumes—tanned, wizened, etched by salt. Their physiques seem as if from another age; strengthened by nature on a frontier that marks the body.
—William V. Ganis