The lands of Joni Sternbach


Hawaiian Ed, 2008, Montauk, NY, ferrotype on aluminum, 8×10 in., Joni Sternbach

Once annoyed by the Long Island surfers who kept getting in the way of the landscape, photographer Joni Sternbach finally turned her camera on them and, using 19th century tintype techniques, created an enormous collection of modern day surfers in vintage-looking photographs. She came to view this body of work as “peopled landscapes.”

Sternbach explained this — and her portable beach darkroom — to a roomful of journalists when her exhibition Surfland opened at PEM in 2009. This was the same year that the museum hired its first curator of photography. Phillip Prodger brought Sternbach to PEM after working with her at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

“I was working on a show about landscape photography,” he recalls. “A dealer said to me, ‘the only problem with a show like that is it will be all men, because there really aren’t any great women landscapists.’ I was so irritated by this comment, I set out to find all the great women landscape photographers I could, and there are many. Joni was one of those I approached at that time, and we acquired some of her work for our collection.”
Sternbach’s latest project takes us back to Long Island, but this time to a series of portraits of derelict homes. She has just informed us that this project, Promise Land, is the subject of a book of photography sold through Cafe Royal Books and part of the Tate’s special collection of small publications. The book’s forward calls Promise Land  “a poignant elegy to the ghosts of failure that stalk the American Dream.”
Structures in various states of decay peek out from behind branches, creepers, trees and water, embedded in the natural world that threatens to overtake them. These abandoned homes are as vessels devoid of functionality, yet continuing to exude the personalities of their former inhabitants; they stand as sentries guarding their memories and whispering their aspirations.
Sternbach told me in an email that she was able to really “see” this project before starting it because she lives in the same area of Long Island, home to many artists throughout the years, most notably Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Their house and studio have been preserved for tours.
It’s kind of mind blowing to see how simple a life they lived here compared to what this area has become. For me, the structures I’ve been photographing have become a symbol of the past. Home, the American Dream as we once knew it. People don’t build or even live like this anymore. Middle class values have been replaced by big bucks. When I first started shooting I called the project “Un Real-Estate,” because the architecture is photographed straight on, dead pan style,  like you’d expect to see in a realtors office, except the houses are not in livable condition.

 I suppose the crumbling economy did spur the project along. There is one particular house on my block that’s been empty now for about five years. It took me a few years just to notice it, the lawn is kept mowed though it’s steadily deteriorating. Kind of obvious in a quiet kind of way. This house was the impetus for the project. It inspired me to pay attention to what’s going on here in the real estate market. The town is flooded with realtors. I thought of this project as a way to riff on the photos one sees in their windows, all kinds of homes but many mansions so prominently displayed.


Back in 2009, Sternbach talked of how, “Surfers came and found me.” With those subjects, she found an otherworldly quality. At the place where sea and sand meet, Sternbach’s subjects stand like ocean creatures briefly alighted on land before slipping back into the surf. She captures weekend warriors and seasoned athletes alike — the photographer’s democratic eye rendering professional and amateur equal, undistinguished by beauty, age or experience and unified by their love of the waves…Enjoy these last days of summer…and the surf.

Abbey, 2008, Joni Sternbach, 8x10 in., tintype, Copywright Joni Sternbach

Abbey, 2008, Joni Sternbach, 8×10 in., tintype

Old Friends, 2007, Joni Sternbach, 8x10 in., tintype,

Old Friends, 2007, Joni Sternbach, 8×10 in., tintype

Three Girls, 2008, Joni Sternbach, 8x10 in., tintype

Three Girls, 2008, Joni Sternbach, 8×10 in., tintype

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