In 1839, the very first portrait photograph was captured of (and by) Robert Cornelius. It must have been a difficult - albeit likely humorous - process, as Cornelius set up his camera before hurriedly running to sit motionless in front of it, arms crossed and hair tousled. To go to such an effort demonstrates the essential connection between portraiture and photography. They've been attached to one another from the beginning. Moreover, portrait photography is more important and accessible to the public in ways Cornelius could never have imagined. But in Joni Sternbach's newest body of work "Surfboard", we see the oldest techniques of photography implemented in the capturing of a different kind of portrait.
As the title of the show suggests, "Surfboard" continues Sternbach's ongoing "Surfland" series by capturing surfing culture through the use of tintype and silver-gelatin photographs. However, unlike her previous works, there are no actual surfers in the show at all. Instead, Sternbach photographs a wide array of boards, from weathered and beaten Hobies to modern fiberglass boards. The boards act as canvases themselves, showing not only the scars of their use but also elaborately painted designs like those in #2 Lightning Bolt and #5 Skeleton.
While a surfboard in the abstract is a utilitarian item of sport and leisure, under Sternbach's careful eye and expert photographic skills, the boards take on an entirely new quality. Sternbach refers to this quality as "totemic," and they do inspire a certain reverence. Especially when clustered together on the beach, they become an altar to the ocean.
And by giving these boards the dignity that such a laborious process as tin-type prints require, Sternbach glorifies the craft itself. One can take a moment to appreciate the gently sloping curves and precise symmetry of the boards, as well as the varied decorative elements. The care and talent with which these boards were created shines through in Sternbach's work. It's fitting that the only bit of an actual human being captured in Sternbach's many portraits are two hands in #6 Hobie with Hands, clutching a board to hold it upright, as if to say "These crafted this."
-Cole Sweetwood, "Pick of the Week", Artillery, published 2 December 2020