Photograph by Joni Sternbach
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Oliver, Santa Barbara, California
Photograph by Joni Sternbach

Old-Fashioned Photos Reveal the Passion and Grit of Surfers

Photographer Joni Sternbach takes to the shores to capture surfers in their native habitats.

World Oceans Day is June 8, and Proof is celebrating all week. Help us honor our oceans by sharing a photo on Instagram tagged #NatGeoOceansDay, and stay tuned for the editors' picks to appear on our website.

When it comes to worshiping the ocean, surfers are some of the world's most passionate devotees.   

It was this fervor that drew photographer Joni Sternbach to make portraits of them. "I was more drawn to the idea of people who were wholly absorbed by the ocean, both physically and metaphorically," she says. "I was captivated by it too, but from the other side, the shoreline." 

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Robert and Wingnut, Montauk, New York

Sternbach was already working on an abstract project about the sea when she began to connect more deeply with surfers. 

"I was photographing a landscape of the sea and sky after a storm," she says. "I was positioned on a bluff looking eastward. The sky was black but the water was clean and glassy. There were many surfers in the ocean. All of a sudden, the sun broke through the clouds in what I’ve once heard described by photographers as 'godly light,' and it lit up my photograph like a Dutch painting. I could hear everyone in the water cheer in a collective cry of joy. At that moment, I felt I had bonded with all these people in the water who probably never even noticed my presence.

"I like to say that surfers came to me. It took a number of years of photographing the ocean surface and having surfers find their way into my photographs for me to pay enough attention to them as my subject matter." 

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Ruby and Mike, Montauk, New York   

But Sternbach isn't your average photographer. She works with alternative analog processes, specifically wet plate and tintype photography, which were popularized in the 1850s. This makes for an unusual juxtaposition with the modern styling and attitude of surfers. 

"I learned the wet plate collodion process at about the same time I began my 'Ocean Details' series," she says. "I just got hooked on this beautiful process on blackened metal. The clincher for most people, and me included, is the immediacy of wet plate (think Polaroid of yesteryear) and the amazing image quality from the hand-poured emulsion and vintage brass lenses. Once I understood the limitations of the process, I realized that it was more of a question of finding a subject matter to suit the medium, not the other way around." 

Sternbach began to seek surfers out and engage with them in the hopes of taking their portraits.  

"I went to the beach, set up my large-format camera, and dark box and waited for curiosity to set in. I was fairly intimidated too. The surfing beach near me is small, and the amount of space my gear and I take up is rather large. The first person [who] approached me that day on the beach was a surfer. We chatted about the camera, the process, and eventually he posed for a tintype." 

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Nica and Lily, Montauk, New York   

Sternbach quickly discovered that directing surfers for portraits has its own quirks. 

"One thing I’ve learned from photographing surfers is to allow them to direct the pose," she says. "I often ask them if they have a particular idea in mind. If not, I try and pay attention to the way they stand or sit while waiting around for me. That’s often the pose that works best." 

"Sometimes I make a photograph of a [surfer], and once it’s processed, it has this feeling that this person was the first person to ever walk that place on Earth. I call it the ‘first man’ photo." 

Sternbach says that she hopes these photographs will inspire people to see surfers in a new light. 

"I think there’s a spirit of adventure and bold individualism that comes with the act of surfing. There is an idea that the surfer has supplanted the cowboy in Western mythology, and now the surfer is the new icon. I would hope that people might think of surfers as the new adventurers, that these photographs show something about the sport, the lifestyle, and their own particular understanding of surfing in a different way."

View more of Joni Sternbach's work on her website.

Janna Dotschkal is an associate photo editor for National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

World Oceans Day is June 8, and Proof is celebrating all week. Help us honor our oceans by sharing a photo on Instagram tagged #NatGeoOceansDay, and stay tuned for the editors' picks to appear on our website.