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Peabody Essex Museum Launches Photography Program with Surfland: Photographs by Joni Sternbach

SALEM, MA.- The Peabody Essex Museum presents more than 40 images of stunning luminosity and elegance in SurfLand, the first solo museum exhibition of photographer Joni Sternbach opening May 16, 2009. Sternbach captures portraits of surfers in tintype, a 19th-century technique little changed since its invention. The combination of historic process and contemporary subject is a dynamic one, yielding direct, timeless, one-of-a-kind images of individuals standing on the verge of sea and land. The combination of contemporary and historic extends to the presentation of SurfLand images accompanied by a selection of PEM tintypes from the 1860s through the 1890s, including portraits of Civil War soldiers and members of the Wampanoag tribe.

Surfland launches PEM’s new schedule of fine arts photography exhibitions organized by the Museum’s first-ever curator of photography, featuring contemporary works by world-class artists three-times per year. “I’m thrilled that the Peabody Essex Museum will introduce its new photography program with a debut of this powerful body of work,” said PEM Curator of Photography, Phillip Prodger. “Through Joni Sternbach’s lens, relationships between surfers, their boards and the landscape are shown with a primal grace.”

Part performance, part laboratory
“Surfers came and found me,” said Sternbach, who discovered that her wooden, 19th-century-style view camera and portable darkroom on the beach attracted potential subjects. Captured on the shores of San Diego, Santa Cruz, and Montauk, New York, Sternbach’s images possess the immediate quality of a singular print created then and there. The process of creating a tintype can indeed be as much an act of performance as visual art. Tintype is a wet-plate technique, meaning that the chemicals must be hand-applied, exposed and developed before the plate dries. The chemistry is slow, requiring utter stillness on behalf of the subject for two or three minutes. Only the waves move evocatively around their ankles.

Far from typical surfer action shots, the images have 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. Not representative of any physical ideal, they embody a range of types––from weekend warriors to seasoned athletes. Sternbach’s democratic eye renders professional and amateur equal, undistinguished by beauty, age or experience and unified by their love of the waves.

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