Birdwell Blog

Joni Sternbach’s Surfboard
Dazzling Blue #134

The history of surfing is the history of surfboard design. As boards evolved, so did the imaginations of surfers. You would not have stood on the beach at yet-to-be-ridden Pipeline with a finless Hot Curl board underarm in the 1940s and thought, I’m out there! (square pegs, round holes). Nor would you have imagined the up-down, up-down style brought on by The Shortboard Revolution of the late 1960s while steering—or rather, being steered by—an 11-foot, 40 lbs. hollowed out plank in the 1920s. 

 

I have been fascinated by surfboards since my first board—a 6’6” blood orange Wilken with a diamond tail and a boxed single fin. It would be lying to say that I slept with it, but after surfing on it by day it was still there with me by night. I’d yet to reach the skill level to call it an appendage. It was more this thing I was trying to shape myself to. In other words, the board was boss.

 

When the photographer Joni Sternbach told me she was doing a book of historical surfboards I got real excited. I was very familiar with her tintype and collodion photos, and thought they’d worked especially well with old boards. When she asked me to write an essay for it I got even more excited. I have lots to say about the subject.

 

 

The book has come out. It looks gorgeous. I asked Joni what compelled her to shoot specifically surfboards, as opposed to surfers, of which she has photographed many of the greats.

 

“I first became interested in surfboards after a visit to Surfing Heritage Foundation & Cultural Center (SHACC), in San Clemente, in 2011, where I met the curator, Barry Haun,” she told me. “Barry showed me their vast collection and offered to carry one of Duke Kahanamoku’s boards to the beach for me so I could photograph it with the wet plate collodion process. I chose the Flying V board, partly for its winged design, but also because it was shaped in California during one of Duke’s trips here. The board weighs over 70 pounds so it wasn’t such an easy task getting it to the beach and digging into the sand. Barry stood behind the board for the shoot and held it to make sure it didn’t fall with the wind or get damaged in any way. 

 

 

“I made a series of tintypes that day and then didn’t really think about them (in their own right) for a long time. Fast-forward to France 2015. We’re at an exhibition I am having in Biarritz when a surfboard collector introduced himself to me at the opening. He talked to me about my work and was very interested in what I was doing, but was also very enthusiastic about his collection and wanted me to see it. So we arranged a meeting, and drove up to his “attic“ where he kept his incredible collection. Once there I was amazed. I had not seen such a collection like his before. I asked if I could photograph it and we arranged a photo shoot. It was kind of a comical situation, because he kept asking me which boards I was interested in and then basically he chose the boards himself and curated the arrangement of boards on the beach. I have to say, I’m really glad he did that because I knew a lot less about surfboards then than I do now. And I can see how he considered color, shape, form, and model of board very carefully. During this photo shoot it rained quite a bit and we kept having to stop working and to take cover from the rain. The surfboards, however, just stood up there in the sand, like sentinels waiting for us to return. Since all the humans were taking cover I did my first test plate of the two Lightning Bolts and Brewer without any people in it. It turned out to be quite a spectacular photograph. I then began to think about surfboards quite differently—their history, their shaper, their rider, their essence…and all of the permutations in one solitary shape.”

 

Buy Surfboard here: https://jonisternbach.com/product/surfboard/

 

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