The Clarence John Laughlin Award 2011 Grantee Joni Sternbach SurfLandTo see more of Joni Sternbach ‘s work please visit her website: www.jonisternbach.com.
Juror's StatementJudging an award based on prints? What a radical concept! In these days of bits, bytes, and backlit screens it is an increasingly rare pleasure to have works in hand. How revolutionary of you! In theory, I regret that I could only review ten portfolios. The practical arguments of efficiency and expediency, for which I am in fact very grateful, sway the sensible folks at the New Orleans Photographic Alliance (NOPA) to arrange things the way they are.
Selfishly, and in an ideal world, I would have liked to consider all submissions in print form; face-to-face viewing makes an enormous difference in one’s perception of a photographer’s intentions and accomplishment. The distinctions between image and object appear in high relief. A narrative seen and admired on-screen may not carry through to prints. In the best cases, prints not only maintain a spell cast by the images but enhance it, amplify the magic of the image with something uniquely photographic, present in any printing medium, that adds dimension to what is already a solid foundation.
My reactions to the finalists’ portfolios varied. I kept in mind the award’s stated parameter of sustained accomplishment. I sought hints of transcendence, a deepening of the photograph as experience in and over time. Mere formalism wasn’t compelling enough, regardless of high levels of success. My expectations and standards were set higher than usual.
Clarence John Laughlin inspired me. One can scarcely name an award after this character without considering his uniquely contributions to photography. Laughlin (1905–1985) started out creatively as a writer, and adopted photography as a way of conveying his vision more symbolically. Jonathan Williams’ introduction to the Aperture monograph Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye (published as the catalogue to a 1973 exhibition under that title at the Philadelphia Museum of Art) is a rich source of information and inspiration about this iconoclastic visionary, whose own writings need to be held adjacent to his photographs.
His “central position,” Laughlin wrote in his 1973 statement, “is one of extreme romanticism” [italics here and below his]. And I find much else in Williams’ and Laughlin’s writings to accompany my readings of not only the ten finalists in the CJL award, but much else that captivates me in contemporary photography (I recommend them to anyone needing to disabuse themselves of the conviction that all writing on photography is dry and esoteric). Laughlin continues:
Everything I see must become personal; otherwise, it is dead and mechanical. Our only chance to escape the blight of mechanization, of acting and thinking alike, of the huge machine which society is becoming, is to restore life to all things through the saving and beneficent power of the human imagination.
Honoring Laughlin’s “extreme romanticism” and his utopian ideal was ample incentive for me to identify a particular excellence in the award bearing his name.
And so my eyes alit, happily and decisively, on the photographs of Joni Sternbach. In her work, which I have known and watched grow over several years, I see a sustained interest in something as elemental as our human desire to understand and reconnect with the oceans from which we evolved (accepting Darwin’s schema). Her utilization of hand-poured emulsions naturally ties to the liquid aspect; but her tintypes are also remarkable, spell-binding objects whose nacreous glow embodies the ineffable compulsion that draws us to the sea. And, in the case of her surfers, to ride the waves, to harness and dance with the boundless energy of the water world, if only for the few transcendent moments of a wave’s maturation and collapse.
Respecting the limitations of her medium, Sternbach photographs her aqueous adventurers in repose, and her views transport us. In many, the sea beckons in the background (as it does, no doubt, in the minds of the surfers); its refusal to sit still for art’s manmade contrivances give it an animated presence, a vapory respiration, a heaving chest. Rubber wetsuits and gracefully shaped boards notwithstanding, Sternbach’s surfers assume mythic proportions. They are solemn and radiant, confident and self-assured, materially present and still in the face of morphing, elusive, and potentially deadly nature.
To Joni Sternbach, to Honorable Mentions Rachel Jablo and Kathleen Robbins, to all CJL award finalists and entrants, my thanks, admiration, and appreciation for your engagement in this process. I am grateful to have had these encounters with your imagery; you are all romantics to some degree. And to my colleagues in New Orleans I express my on-going respect and gratitude. Not to mention my secret delight in sharing the Mississippi with you—our fluid and awesome connection. Thank you again for inviting your upriver associate to express his voice in your circle. (© 2011 George Slade)
George Slade, Minneapolis, November 2011
Congratulations to all of the Finalists in the 2011 The Clarence John Laughlin Award
Congratulations to all of the finalists for the second annual Clarence John Laughlin Award: