An Interview With Photographer Joni Sternbach

The best of friends are those that pass along good art, and wise words.

In this case, the name Joni Sternbach was introduced to my daily perusing through a dear friend. Peruse and pursue I did, and what I found was nothing short of breathtaking. Joni’s Surfland collection immediately blew my mind, the entirety in tin type process.

While this particular series of photographs were taken on the shores of New York and Byron Bay, they emulate the California surf soul. Surf cultures along the world’s coasts, while each differing slightly based upon location, are united for the same love of our Earth’s Ocean and her waves. Joni captures this spirit; the patience , the calm, the self-assurance, the passion for that day over any other. Her own love for the waters and its devotees shine through her work, raising questions of who this woman is… how she thinks, and what moves her creatively to capture images that move her.

joni sternbach surfland

First and foremost, thank you for creating such incredible visual fuel for both mind and body to enjoy… I’ve been lost in your photographs for the last hour, and that feels reeeeal good. Tell me… where did you grow up, and how would you describe your parents?

Well, I grew up in a place that offered me very little inspiration, Yonkers, NY. Strangely enough however, some pretty talented people went to and graduated from the same HS as I did.

My parents were a unique blending of cultures; eastern European and Middle eastern first generation Americans.  My mother had a head of dark, big hair, large gold hoop earrings and worked as a hair stylist in her own beauty parlor in the Bronx. My father too started his own business in the 60’s and together they traveled around Europe, learned to play tennis and ski and threw big parties every Sunday for all their new Euro friends in our house in the suburbs.

When did you take your first photograph? On what camera?

My best friend and I photographed each other in Jr. high as we dressed up in what we thought were impressionistic poses and ideal settings, however the first serious photograph I remember making was while a fine-arts major in college. They required photography as a foundation course. It was in the early 70’s and the camera I used was nothing special, a Konica I think, or just some cheap 35mm my dad loaned me.

Do you remember what the image was and why you felt moved to capture it?

I do! I took my first photograph of a homemade cheesecake with a slice cut out. It was the spirit of the banal that drew my attention. It was also the entire act of developing the film and printing the image in the darkroom that was the most exciting.

joni sternbach surfland

Why photography, what it does for your spirit? 

It’s hard to say exactly, because each project gives me something different. With Surfland, it’s the spirit of adventure and the unknown that it brings each time I set out on a location to shoot. It’s the act of randomly meeting and conversing with individuals that I would never have had a chance to meet. It’s using the camera to create a conversation and sometimes that dialogue is intensely personal and profound. It’s connecting with people on a common ground that is a natural environment and each person there shares that same love of the ocean that I do.

When/how did you realize you wanted to be a photographer when you “grew up”?

After studying art as a teenager for several years I made the switch to photography. I somehow knew that this was what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be and that most of all, I wanted to be good at it. Of course, I had no idea how I was going to do that!

You must choose one artist to listen to all day in your studio as you work… who might that be? Why?

It would really depend on the day but it could range from Ani DiFranco to Bach and then to Bon Iver.

How would you describe your personal style?

Funny you should ask! It was just brought to my attention that my style is cowboy commando! I’m going to go with that for now.

joni sternbach surfland

What does the future look like to you?

The future holds concern for me. I worry about the political state of the country, the natural environment and the loss of wilderness. I want my children to have a future without fear for the planet and the natural order.

Do you plan on doing more video and film? 

YES! I have a surf film idea in mind.

Of all the places you have traveled… what will always remain a “this is what it’s all about” moment for you?

I’d have to say that of all the places I’ve traveled to that Byron Bay synthesizes that for me.

joni sternbach surfland

How would you define Love in your own life and its role….

Love is a funny thing.  By that I mean that it’s very important for most people, including me, to be loved. I live my life in the world knowing that I am and it somehow gives me a sense of freedom and a certain kind of passport towards individualism and independence.

And to be Free…. What does that look like?

I wish I knew! I’m not joking. I am living in a time in my life when I am sandwiched between aging parents and grown children. I’m not feeling so free. But when I do, it is after a long climb to a high place with an incredible view in the wilderness.

Thank you again and again… for moving our senses , inspiring us to create uniquely, and of course… taking the time to answer my questions. Keep creating beautiful images for all of us to dream in…. Best to you Joni.

joni sternbach surfland

joni sternbach surfland

View more of Joni’s work here:

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Her photos are pure magic.

10 years ago
10 years ago

Amy! Soo cool to see someone using film and also large format cameras. Thanks for bringing someone new to my eyes, her work is amazing.

10 years ago

Oh goodness, such inspiring images and such a wonderful interview! Joni you have such talent, and thank you Amy for sharing this! SO much inspiration, my favorites are the second and last.

xo, Juliette Laura

10 years ago


Those images are absolutely fantastic!

Cowboy Commando!

10 years ago

I love this so much, in a way it makes me sad because I wanted to study photography in school but now i’m doing psych/environmental studies in a concrete jungle with absolutely no inspiration. I just want to photograph nature and mother earth.

10 years ago

I wrote a report and gave a presentation on Joni Sternbach in a photography class in college. I was/am enamored with her work and her ethereal images comforted me when I was living in Colorado and homesick for my hometown of Redondo Beach in Southern California. Absolutely beautiful, thank you for this special interview FP!