What's the difference between art photography and fashion photography? That's the question I kept wondering about at Joni Sternbach's "SurfLand" exhibition at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum. It features 19th-century-style tintype shots of surfers posed on New York and southern California beaches — sun-dappled bikini babes, sinewy dudes, athletic ladies and gentlemen squeezed into wetsuits, and grizzled old coots. They're all beautiful and sexy, even the gawky youths and the grizzled guys.
HAWAIIAN ED Sternbach’s best photos capture the feeling of people shaped by the elements.
The Brooklyn photographer's old-timey technique makes them seem straight out of the mists of the past. Only the fashions — those wetsuits — betray that these shots were made from 2006 to '08. It's wicked cool and gimmicky, all at once — and not much different from leafing through an American Eagle or Urban Outfitters catalogue.
What makes these photos feel that way? Secondly, is that okay? And, thirdly, why can't I get over my critical self and just give these photos some love? ESPN surfing blogger Jon Coen called them "authentic, rich" and said, "when I consider what went into each shot, I'm floored." And the Globe's Mark Feeney gave them a thumbs up, saying, "These images have an innate elegance."
Admittedly Hawaiian Ed is a striking shot. He's the old man of the sea perched on rocks at Montauk, New York, in 2008 with his long board balanced under his arm. He wears a bone necklace and palm-tree shorts as he squints into the sun, his hair blowing in the salt breeze. His body seems to have been bronzed and then sanded smooth by the bright sun, rocks, and waves — like driftwood or beach glass.
Sternbach's best photos capture that feeling of people shaped by the elements. The effect is amplified by the vivid materiality of her method. The tintype process, invented in the 1850s, prints images on specially prepared metal sheets, in this case aluminum. Preparation to developing must be completed before the chemicals dry, so everything must be done on the spot. Inside a dark tent, she pours collodion onto a plate, then dips it in photo-sensitive silver nitrate (collodion helps nitrate stick to metal) and loads the plate into a traditional view camera. The chemicals are less light-sensitive than contemporary stuff, so exposures take two to three seconds. Then she returns to the tent to develop the shots. No negative is created; each image is a unique print, which gives them an improvisational quality — accentuated by the varying drips, splotches, and halos, which themselves suggest the spray of the sea.
This is the first show curator Phillip Prodger has organized for the Peabody Essex since he became the museum's first full-time photography curator in May 2008. The museum has long been known for its art and artifacts of New England, Native American life, and the cultures seagoing Salem touched via the China trade. But it has been redefining itself over the past decade as a place that respects its past while taking on a broader — and hipper — scope. The appeal of Sternbach's photos for the institution is clear. They reference antique methods and ethnographic documentary photos in the museum's collection. They strut at the intersection between maritime and cool.
Sternbach's subjects are young and old, black, white, and Asian, laid-back lazy crazy boys of endless summer as well as — from one shot — bikini-clad sisters in a print so dark they seem to emerge from a sultry night. The groovy old dude with the dog in Allan + Honey is a classic surfing character, Allan "Bandito" Weisbecker, who became known because of his 2000 memoir In Search of Captain Zero. But most of these folks are unknowns.
Three little girls haul their dad's giant board across the beach rocks. A woman, standing in the surf, cradles a baby in her arms. A pregnant lady drags her board across the beach. This is the tribe of surfing. They pose with their scratched and scarred boards, decorated with lacy patterns, flower designs, American flags, as if they were totems or shields. (If you're of a Freudian frame of mind, all these people standing and hugging their boards has amusing implications.) Sternbach's project seems like some back-to-the-future Edward Curtis quest to document a vanishing aboriginal people.
For all that, Sternbach is only able to attain the richness of a photo like Hawaiian Ed a few times in the 47 shots here. When they don't have it, they feel like a clothing catalogue. That's not to say that art photography is by nature better than fashion photography — but to point to a hollowness that pervades so-so examples of both.