Before adding a two-story studio next to her Ruxton house, photographer Connie Imboden used a basement room for shoots. The walls were thickly painted black. Mirrors, long an integral component of her art, hung on chains from the ceiling.
Making a service call one day, an unsuspecting repairman had to pass through that darkened space to reach the furnace.
"He said he had to go get something, but he just jumped in his truck and never came back," Imboden says with a laugh.
No one will likely be seen fleeing hurriedly from "Connie Imboden: A Retrospective," an exhibit at Y:ART Gallery & Fine Gifts that opens Wednesday — the artist's first show in Baltimore in 13 years. But visitors to this display, which represents three decades of work, may well find themselves startled, haunted, touched, even conflicted.
Collected by such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Imboden's photographs explore the nude from distinctive angles — in water or reflected in mirrors.
She doesn't manipulate images in a darkroom or on a computer. Her camera captures what happens when her models get into a pool (she goes underwater to photograph them); or sit or lie down on a bench in front of a plastic-backed, partially-translucent mirror.
"For 30 years, I've been taking the body apart and putting it back," Imboden, 63, says. "My job is to make some sense of all this."
The result is work that poet and critic John Wood, writing in the introduction to the 2009 book "Reflections: 25 Years of Photography by Connie Imboden," describes as "among the strangest in contemporary art and among the strangest in the history of contemporary art because it is simultaneously terrifying and beautiful."
The beauty comes from the striking painterly quality of the photographs. Some works call to mind Christ figures and anguished saints done by past masters. Others reveal a sculptural quality or a rich sensuality. There are Cubist-like deconstructions of form. Some images seem to spring from monstrous nightmares, or conjure up windows into a tortured soul.
When shooting in the pool behind her house, Imboden savors the different tonal shades that result — the marble-like quality of the part of a model's body below the water, the wider range of colors covering the part above the water.
For shots involving mirrors, Imboden plays continually with the reflections, sometimes creating shots of strangely distorted limbs and faces, elongated or compressed shapes.
"I've been hung up on the mirror for the past five years," she says. "I do all sorts of stuff to a mirror. I scratch it. I'll paint parts of it. I'll remove some of the silver or the backing. I have all these jagged shards that I can attach to it. When I'm working, shards are flying all over the place."
To produce those shards, the artist takes a large mirror, wraps it in an old blanket, places a pointy rock on it — then drives her truck over it. The resultant shards line a wall of Imboden's studio, ready to be applied, as the mood strikes, to a mirror hanging in the center of the room.
Since she introduced color into her work in 2007 ("I'm more a black-and-white photographer who shoots in color," Imboden says) she keeps an assortment of variously colored cloths handy. They can be used in myriad ways to add tonal layers to images.
Those layers are all the more pronounced on photos printed on aluminum, a recent process Imboden has embraced. "You can see all this wonderful, lurking stuff much better," she says.
For the past six months, Imboden has added other figures to her work — mannequins. These include a diminutive, asexual figure that looks like the kind of ovoid-headed alien described by folks in Roswell, N.M.
Since 1990, the artist has only numbered her photos, not attached any titles. Viewers are free to make their own interpretations.
"I don't think beforehand what these images are going to be," she says. "And if I ask a model to think of an emotion, it gets really corny. It's not a cognitive process. I respond to the movement of the model, or the positioning of the mirrors."
Each shoot lasts 30 to 50 minutes. Afterward, Imboden and her models check out the photos.
"A model might say, 'Maybe I could move this way instead,' and we'll go back for another shoot," Imboden says. "We'll do that all day."
The yield from those sessions includes such formidable photos as one of a male who seems to have nothing but reddish sockets for eyes; a fist appears to protrude from his chest.
"This one reminds me of the myth of Orpheus," the artist says.
Looking at the image of a hunched-over man, eyes closed, sinewy arms dangling, Imboden sees "the weight of depression on him." As for the deep red tones that add an eerie light on one side of the figure: "They suggest passion and flayed skin," she says.
In the 1990s, Imboden responded to the primal scream image she observed running through the work of eminent 20th-century British painter Francis Bacon. One of her in-pool photos captures a scream forcing its way through what appears to be an armless female torso. The mouth and lower jaw lunge out as if from some creature without a full face (the top of the head was above the water in the dark).
Last winter, an unexpected source provided fresh inspiration for Imboden.
"My wife dragged me to the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast at the Charles Theatre to see [Alban Berg's] 'Lulu,' and I was completely blown away by the German Expressionist style of everything in the production," she says. "That really penetrated my psyche."
Berg's atonal masterpiece, with its gritty story of seduction and murder given a bold directorial concept by South African artist William Kentridge, prompted a new round of photos. Imboden used mirrors with various scrapes and gouges to generate dark, angular images that seem not-so-distant cousins to German Expressionism.
Imboden's photos have earned her widespread admiration, She's had solo exhibits in Germany, France, Scandinavia, China and South America, along with several American cities, during the past 13 years. But not Baltimore.
"I was worried about a conflict of interest," says Imboden, who is president of the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund (established by her mother's aunt, Mary S. Baker) and cofounder of the Baker Artist Awards. "The young generation thinks of me as a philanthropist, not an artist. But I'm an artist, not a philanthropist."
After the arrival of Y:ART in Highlandtown a year ago, a friend connected Imboden to its proprietor, Julia Yensho, who offered to present an exhibit.
"Connie's work is spectacular and very moving," Yensho says. "I love the mood, the nonreality of her surfaces; the way she doesn't mess with her photos. She just uses what she brings to the table — her water, her mirrors — to create these magnificent compositions. I'm honored to be showing her work. I can't wait."
Imboden has wielded a camera since she was 17, when she followed her mother's advice to take a weekend photography course at Maryland Institute College of Art (she would later teach there for many years).
"I was a mess before I found photography," she says. "I loved it. I was getting lots of attention, with people saying, 'That's pretty.' Then I started to make my own images and I stopped getting compliments. That's when I knew I was on to something."
If you go
"Connie Imboden: A Retrospective" opens Wednesday and runs through Nov. 26 at Y:ART Gallery and Fine Gifts, 3402 Gough St. Reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday. Call 443-928-2272, or go to yartgalleryandfinegifts.com.