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'Sea Creatures' on Exhibit at Local Art Gallery

A unique collection of photographs exploring surf, sea and sand has made its way to La Jolla.

If you don’t believe in mermaids I have news for you—they exist. Or at least they do right here in La Jolla at the Sea Creatures exhibit on display at .

The mermaid, with long flowing hair and elegant fin gracing the sand, is the work of Joni Sternbach, the photographer behind this ethereal image. The photograph is part of Sternbach’s SurfLand series, which features tintypes of surfers and the elements that surround them. Just as the mermaid holds both a mythical and mysterious quality, so do Sternbach’s portraits as she captures the raw beauty of surf culture found near the sea and sand.

The journey to creating this collection of tintypes holds a certain irony that dates back to 2006. Sternbach was shooting landscapes of the sea and sky and found the surfers in the ocean to be a distraction from what she was intending to capture. 

“I would whistle out to the water to get them out of the way,” she confesses with a hint of laughter in her voice. But what she observed in one of her images—the surfer as “part of the water” not just “in the water”—felt magical, and it gave life to an entire collection of photographs that has since become SurfLand.

Although the series specifically depicts surf culture, Sternbach’s hope is that people are drawn to the images for what they represent. Ultimately it’s a collection “about people and the environment and their passion,” she states. Even if one doesn’t have an affinity for surf culture, there is a universal theme to be observed.

“You feel like you’re witnessing someone standing in time,” she reveals when asked what feeling her portraits evoke.

Not only do her images tell a story, but how the images are captured lends itself to the storytelling process. As described by Joseph Bellows Gallery, “The use of a large camera slows time down, so that her subjects adopt a timeless beauty and permanence that defies the otherwise active, animated life of surfing the big wave.”

It’s no wonder her tintypes feel nostalgic, as the technique she uses calls back to a simpler time. It’s the wet-plate collodion process first developed in the early 19th century. According to Sternbach, this technique “was a big advancement in photographic history.”

Joseph Bellows, the owner of the gallery, was drawn to Sternbach’s work for this very reason.

“To take the contemporary subject of surfers and fuse it with a 19th century technique creates an interesting synergy of process and subject matter,” he said.

Due to the elaborate set-up involved, the beach becomes her darkroom as she prepares the chemicals and instantly develops the images on location. It draws a crowd. Although Sternbach does not consider herself a performance artist, she believes there is a “performance aspect” to her work in that the camera “creates an opportunity for conversation.” 

It’s this element of conversation that led her to the mermaid. When Sternbach arrived in Australia in February 2011 for an artist residency, she was greeted by followers of her SurfLand series who
were eager to take part in helping her capture Australian surf culture. Upon her arrival they offered her something she couldn’t refuse—a living, breathing mermaid. To her surprise they actually presented one, or perhaps carried her, in glorious fin—a mythical creature brought to life by an Australian surfer whose art is to embody the spirit of the mermaid in an elegant, functional fin that allows her to swim the sea and experience the water as one of its creatures. And so art found the artist and the mythical mermaid was brought to life.

You can view a selection of images from Joni Sternbach’s SurfLand collection at the Sea Creatures exhibit at Joseph Bellows Gallery through Aug. 13. The work of Dana Montlack and Liz Lantz is also on display.

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