Surfers, and the sands of time

''Matty + Ingrid'' is one of the tintype photographs by Joni Sternbach on display at the Peabody Essex Museum. ''Matty + Ingrid'' is one of the tintype photographs by Joni Sternbach on display at the Peabody Essex Museum. (Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / May 22, 2009
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SALEM - Joni Sternbach has perfected a form of time travel. To get from present to past she uses nothing more complicated than surfboards and tintypes. Surfboards you know about. Tintypes? They were a popular 19th-century photographic process that printed an image on metal, most often iron or steel (Sternbach uses aluminum). Cheaper than daguerreotypes, they were like that format in making images that were unique rather than reproducible.

Sternbach photographs surfers posing with their boards and prints the results as tintypes. In fact, she takes a portable darkroom to the beach and develops her images right there. Forty-seven examples, along with two dozen vintage tintypes, a display explaining that process, and a cheerfully battered surfboard make up "SurfLand: Photographs by Joni Sternbach," which runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through Oct. 4. There's also a monitor playing a video of surfers that Sternbach made with Bruce Milne (the sound of the surf is very soothing).

The time travel comes through the cognitive dissonance of seeing a technique that visually declares its ostensible pastness (you can't look at a tintype and not automatically think "long, long time ago") being used to record something so contemporary as fiberglass boards, latex wet suits, and skimpy bikinis.

The effect of this deadpan displacement of the time-space continuum is at once disorienting and pleasing. The disorientation is obvious. Imagine, as a counterexample, how disconcerting it would be to see Victorians staring out from the viewfinder of a digital camera.

The pleasure, which is more subtle, takes multiple forms. Thanks to their subject matter, these images have an innate elegance. The sleekness of the surfers' physiques echoes the even greater sleekness of their boards. Then there is the overall effect of Sternbach's pictures, which is one of crisp dreaminess. She offers both the particularity of a dream and its otherworldliness. We don't get the glossy endless summer of Beach Boys songs. Rather, the black-and-white images conjure up a matte world of mist and fog.

Adding to the slightly unreal effect is the narrow focus of these images; the ocean in the background almost seems more like a backdrop. The names of the sites where Sternbach photographs have a quasi-fantastic quality, too: Montauk, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Del Mar. They indicate not so much actual locations as states of littoral grace.

Sternbach maintains a cool distance. The photographs aren't action shots. Instead, her subjects pose for the camera, which manages to lend these near-naked people a winning formality. Sternbach shows them singly, in pairs, and as family groups. They have a tribal quality - and the tribe is diverse. The surfers are young and old; black and Asian as well as white; and most are female (one's very pregnant).

Their surfboards are the totems they worship. The boards even look like totems. Held erect, they resemble nipped-and-tucked versions of Easter Island idols. The rudders are the noses.

The Peabody Essex has frequently mounted photography exhibitions, but never on a regular basis. Also, the shows have tended to be related to aspects of the museum's holdings: Asian art, say, or, as here, maritime subjects. "SurfLand" is the first show assembled by the museum's first photography curator, Phillip Prodger. (PEM has 850,000 photographs in its collection.) His brief is to put together exhibitions on a regular schedule and a wide variety of subjects. The next show, for example, looks at fashion models and mannequins. It opens in October. In the meantime, Prodger's off to a fine start.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

SURFLAND: Photographs by Joni Sternbach At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Oct. 4. 866-745-1876,

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