By Alan Burke
SALEM — They look like photos from the dawn of surfing. Beachside. The surfers posing with their boards, staring solemnly at the camera, the ocean behind them dissolving into a kind of blurred daydream.
In fact, it's only the technique that's old — about as old as photography itself. But these 19th-century style tintypes by veteran photographer Joni Sternbach were taken only months ago, and they're part of a new Peabody Essex Museum exhibit called "Surfland."
Yet, they're more than that — representing the leading edge of a new wave at the museum, a department devoted to photography and capable of offering up to four distinct exhibits each year.
In an era of cutbacks and economies, the museum has hired a new curator of photography, Phillip Prodger, and for the first time will regularly offer the art of the photographic image. Future exhibits will draw on outside artists and the PEM's own astonishing collection of 850,000 prints, some among the earliest photos in existence.
The well-traveled Prodger, 41, was born in England but grew up in Rhode Island and went to high school in Hong Kong. With a doctorate from Cambridge, he also has degrees from Stanford and Williams College. His work assignments include stints at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the United Kingdom, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, and the St. Louis Art Museum.
For all that, he considers himself a New Englander and now lives in Salem, declaring, "I feel very at home here." He makes a point of keeping both feet on the ground, avoiding jargon and pretension. He wants everyone to see the beauty of these images, which Sternbach obtained by setting up her equipment on Atlantic and Pacific beaches.
"It's important that art be accessible to as many people as possible," Prodger says, pointedly rejecting the notion that great art requires some elitist interpretation. "Artists make things to be seen and enjoyed."
The tintype process, making a photo from a film of chemicals deposited wet on a sheet of metal (it's never actually tin), requires relatively long exposures and more setup time than your average snap. That gave Sternbach, with her portable darkroom — a big tent — and her wooden camera with bellows the opportunity to attract curious surfers and to learn a bit about each as she lured them in front of her lens.
"Joni gets into a conversation with the subject," Prodger says. Later, she'll invite some into the darkroom to watch the images emerge from the chemicals.
Prodger has chosen 41 tintypes for "Surfland." Some subjects are famous surfers. Some are merely weekend enthusiasts. They pose alone, as couples, with friends. Some are near the camera, seen at full length, a few at a distance.
The tintype process works subtle changes on them, Prodger says, impacting the composition, the tone, the depth of field, changing "the look of things."
The long exposure time — under bright, natural light — lends itself to solemnity. The surfboards might be colorfully decorated, but the people holding them are almost always unsmiling as they stare into the lens.
"They look a little stilted," Prodger concedes. "A little stuffy." Yet, that tells us something.
Each photo is a one-of-a-kind, there are no negatives, and Sternbach presents it without any written information. Even so, the more viewers look, the more details emerge. They have an almost hypnotic quality. A young girl breaks the pattern by staring wistfully off camera, out to sea. A couple have put down their boards so she, looking grimly uncertain, can hang on to the squirming baby. A young woman wearing a bikini, board balanced on her head, pauses to confidently address the camera before wading farther into the sea.
Those poses and the subdued, dark brownish color of the prints summon up our visions of what the past looked like. Tintypes were easily produced more than 100 years ago, they became the medium by which the average person obtained a record of his own image. In this exhibit, some vintage tintypes will be displayed for comparison.
For their part, Sternbach's subjects seem so at home in the past that they remind us how little we have changed in all those years.
If you go
What: "Surfland: Photographs by Joni Sternbach"
Where: The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem
When: Open Saturday, May 16, through Oct. 9
Cost: Museum admission is $11 to $15