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Slow Photography: Interview with Joni Sternbach

Interview by Liss Connell for Slow Travel Magazine

I first encountered Joni Sternbach’s work via our mutual friend, Al Mackinnon. I immediately connected with Joni’s portraits, which reflected the vibe of a bygone era; an era that I thought was all but lost in the current age of digital imagery.

Tintype photography was used mainly in the 1800’s and, due to its portability, was popular among itinerant photographers and street photographers. In recent times it has begun to gain popularity again.

Image by Ben Barnick

What I love the most about Joni’s tintype photography is the amount of time that it takes to capture just one image. From the time used to set up her equipment to then going on and capturing the image … and then waiting for it to process, there’s maximum opportunity for Joni to connect with her subject in a way that very few photographers do, these days. 

Joni holds a BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts and an MA from New York University/International Center of Photography. Her work is included in many public collections, with recent acquisitions from the Joslyn Art Museum, Harn Museum, MOCA, Jacksonville and National Portrait Gallery in London. She is the recipient of several grants and prizes including the Clarence John Laughlin award, NYFA and 2nd prize winner in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize competition 2016. It was an absolute pleasure to connect with Joni and to learn more about her tintype photography. To see more of Joni’s work, or to purchase one of her books, please visit her website or the social media links mentioned on her website.

Rasmus and Kyuss King, by Joni Sternbach

THANKS FOR YOUR TIME, JONI. PLEASE BEGIN BY TELLING US A LITTLE ABOUT TINTYPE PHOTOGRAPHY.

Tintypes are made with wet plate collodion, one of the earliest photographic methods. It’s hey day ran for about 20 years (think digital will last that long 😉 from 1850-1870 and made the medium reproducible from a negative for the first time. Shooting on tin (direct positive) rather than glass for a negative gave the photographer a couple of advantages. One is that exposure times were shorter (than negatives) making it easier to capture a sharp image, and second was the ability to view the image right after it was shot.

Tintypes are unique, so once washed, dried and varnished, they are complete. Wet plate means everything stays wet from the time the plate is poured, to sensitizing it, to exposure, to development, fix and rinse. If you are shooting outdoors, it’s all done with a portable dark box. When I first started working with wet plate very few people were doing it. Now it’s grown tremendously! Maybe it’s the digital backlash or perhaps the craft movement, hard to say, but people like making things and this is a process where you do just that.

Kazzie Mahina, by Joni Sternbach

WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS STYLE OF PHOTOGRAPHY?

Wet plate collodion is such a beautiful technique. It’s magical. I first encountered tintypes in 1999, when I took a workshop in upstate NY with John Coffer. John lives a 19th century lifestyle. He built his own cabin and outhouse; he grows his own food on his farm and makes most everything there from scratch. Just taking his workshop is a transformation. You are immediately drawn into the idea of how to be in time in a different way. I didn’t set out or even expect to become so involved in 19th century photography and making tintypes, as the workshop was just a weekend escape for me at the time. However, I loved what John was doing, and the idea of making my own photographs from scratch was something I could relate very well to. I had spent my first year of college in Vermont spinning my own wool, weaving my own cloth and sewing my own clothes. The whole product, from start to finish, made by my own hand. Wet plate was no different.

You are immediately drawn into the idea of how to be in time in a different way.

Joni Sternbach

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO CAPTURE A PHOTO, FROM THE INITIAL CONCEPT UNTIL THE FINISHED RESULT?

The wet plate process is immediate, like the Polaroid of yesteryear. It is time-consuming, slow photography. The subject is asked to remain in position while I coat the plate and sensitize it (usually about 5 minutes). Once I am ready to shoot they must remain still in order to be sharp for their long-ish exposure. The entire process is very methodical – from coating the plates to sensitizing them. The whole process, from setting up the camera with the model to having a final fixed plate usually takes about 20 minutes.

The whole process, from setting up the camera with the model to having a final fixed plate usually takes about 20 minutes.

Joni Sternbach
Surf site tin type by Joni Sternbach

HOW DOES TINTYPE CAUSE YOU TO VIEW YOUR SUBJECT AND SURROUNDINGS DIFFERENTLY THAN IF YOU WERE CAPTURING AN IMAGE WITH A DIGITAL CAMERA?

In the beginning I didn’t really choose my subjects, I let them choose me. I set up my camera, my dark box, brought my lunch and sat and waited for something to happen, mostly because I was shy or intimidated. After a while, a surfer came up the beach and asked about my camera. We began to talk and I asked him if I could photograph him for a project I was working on. I didn’t tell him the project consisted of one photograph. We went in the water, tripod and all. He asked me how he should hold his board and so I suggested some position and he bluntly told me that, “surfers don’t hold their boards that way” and he proceeded to instruct me on how to photograph a surfer.

That was my first lesson in how to take a picture of a surfer and how to let the subject guide our interaction.

Joni Sternbach

The camera and the setup make the entire process much more intensive than using a single digital camera – one really has to commit when working with tintypes. I have to go in to every shoot with a very open mind and low expectations. That is when the best stuff happens.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT TINTYPE PHOTOGRAPHY?

I love the immediacy of the process and the way it messes with time. And the incredibly special people I have encountered along the way.

Triptych by Joni Sternbach

PLEASE ATTACH ONE OF YOUR FAVOURITE IMAGES AND TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT IT.

The triptych I shot at Ditch Plains in Montauk has got to be one of my favorites, and one of my hardest! It is difficult enough to create a nearly seamless triptych in photography, and using this process presented a near impossible challenge. The changing light, the models, the environment, and the exposure all move in very different ways, so to get everything to work together perfectly felt fantastic.

WHERE CAN PEOPLE PURCHASE / VIEW YOUR WORK?

On my website www.jonisternbach.com OR @jstersurf on instagram and at Von Lintel Gallery in Los Angeles.

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