The Photographic Alphabet: J is for Joni Sternbach
By Tyson Duffy
A strong artist sometimes emerges who insists on returning our attention to the most ordinary elements of life. Think of the madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo, who used simple vocal compositions to render the broadest of emotional concepts (“Love,” “Guilt,” “Agony”). Or think of Claude Monet who spent the early 1890s seated in one spot repainting the same portrait of the Rouen Cathedral façade, creating a series of pieces that capture the same monument in different kinds of light. Joni Sternbach is such an artist, the kind who urges us to see the chaotic world in its barest essentials. Water. Light. Sea. Time.
There is something revelatory about such an approach, especially in our busy hi-tech world. Working often with laborious photographic methods that date back to the mid-nineteenth century—such as the collodion process that produces old-style tintypes—Sternbach often seeks in her images to contrast conceptual opposites, e.g., water with desert, or life with decay. The effect of these various concepts rendered in obsolete tintype produces astounding emotional acuteness and density.
Throw in her natural eye for the gloriously strange and incongruous, and you have photographs that re-imagine what the world can mean. Water, in particular, is a major theme in her work, often contrasted with elements of desolation, decay, or aridity.
The piling-on of themes and time periods can at times be discombobulating. In the piece below—from her most recent 2015 exhibition Surfland—the central theme might be Time itself: in the hazy sepia exposure of nineteenth-century tintype, a 1930s Studebaker Woodie holds a group of twenty-first century surfer kids. Sternbach manages to mix three vastly different centuries together, and yet make us feel as if nothing could be more ordinary. Yet it’s that kind of composition that makes her work extraordinary.