Body Language; With strobe light flashes in her backyard pool, photographer Connie Imboden explores the shape of the subconscious.; Cover Story

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The dream was always the same. She was trapped below the surface of a vast, watery darkness, drowning. She could hear a steady pounding, like a drum or heartbeat, growing louder and nearer. She couldn't breathe, couldn't cry out, couldn't do anything except feel. And what she felt was fear.

Eventually, the dream of drowning stopped. Little Connie Imboden grew up in Ruxton, went to art school and studied photography. Twenty years later, her work is admired and exhibited all over the world. Her first book of photographs, "Out of Darkness," was published in 1992. Her second book, "The Beauty of Darkness," will be published this month. Her work is being considered for next year's prestigious Whitney Biennial show in New York City.

But her success wouldn't have happened, she never would have been called a poet with a camera, if she had not returned to the dark, brooding waters of her childhood nightmare. If she had not learned -- painstakingly and with a signature clarity that some find exhilarating and others find unnerving, even monstrous -- to see the beauty of darkness.

Fresh out of art school, Imboden embarked on a period of searching for her photographic style. She took pictures of rocks and trees. She did portraits and weddings. The pictures were not very good, and her clients were disappointed.

One day in the early 1980s she shot a reflection in a puddle. She decided she liked reflections and photographed a friend floating face up in a pond that reflected the trees along its bank. She photographed her again with light dancing off the surface of the water like St. Elmo's fire.

These pictures made people take notice. No one had seen anything like them before.

Soon, Imboden began to experiment with different ways of photographing reflections and started working with her model in a shallow, plastic kiddie pool whose bottom she lined with black cloth.

One day she put a mirror on the bottom of the pool and photographed the model from above. The result was a haunting triple image, in which the model's face was reflected off both the mirror and the underside of the water's surface.

Imboden called the picture "Mother and Child," because the image of the model's reflection reminded her of a fetus floating in the amniotic fluid. However, there was something disturbing about the picture, even though she didn't immediately know what it was.

Shortly afterward, the dream that had terrified her childhood returned. And Imboden realized that in order to continue as a photographer she would somehow have to face what it represented and overcome it.

"It was a very long process," she says today. "I was full of doubts at the time, about whether I should be doing this, whether the photos were worth all the time and money I was putting into them. And the dream was still frightening, even though this time I was more intrigued by it than afraid.

"But somehow the photographs urged me on. It was a matter of listening to them and trusting that intuitive, creative process."

She decided to confront her fears directly by immersing herself totally in the element she had feared. "I wanted to go underwater," she recalls, "because going below the surface seemed very significant on a psychological level."

Imboden eventually came to see water, both in her dreams and in her pictures, as a symbol for birth and transformation and as a metaphor for the different levels of human consciousness.

Now she has spent nearly a third of her life exploring a single, sharply delimited subject -- the naked body enveloped in water and its reflections.

Reflection, refraction

It's a warm summer evening. Imboden, wearing a black bathing suit and goggles and carrying a sophisticated waterproof camera, floats weightlessly just below the surface of the small swimming pool in her backyard in Ruxton.

Two models, Brooke McCrory and Terrie Fleckenstein, carefully arrange their bodies in the water and on a narrow wooden footbridge that bisects the pool. The models have worked with Imboden before and know what to expect.

The bridge has handrails from which loops and ropes dangle, like a child's swing set. The models use these supports to position parts of their bodies -- a foot, a hand, a leg -- above, on or below the surface of the water as Imboden peers up at them through her camera.

Though the pool is less than 6 feet deep, Imboden wears lead weights around her waist to keep from popping to the surface.

Aside from a small light at the far end of the pool, which won't register on film, it is totally dark. Speaking in a low murmur, Imboden guides the models into their poses. The hushed scene is illuminated by bursts of silent, bright-blue flashes from the photographer's strobe.

Imboden, holding her breath underwater, works rapidly, making minute adjustments in position and lighting. Over the years she has learned that even tiny changes in camera angle can dramatically alter the image formed by the lens. Her technique depends on the reflective and refractive qualities of water. The surface of water acts like a mirror. For an object seen from above the waterline, the reflection appears to lie just below the surface; objects seen from below the waterline appear to cast reflections above the surface.

Light is refracted when its path is bent as it passes from air to water or vice versa. The bending effect creates unexpected forms of distortion, dramatically elongating or foreshortening bodies like a fun-house mirror.

Imboden deliberately exploits such distortion to create her unusual images. Yet her work lies squarely in the photography tradition of such artists as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, all of whom avoided artificial manipulation or alteration of the image formed by the lens. Imboden's pictures may be deliberately ambiguous, but they are never a result of photographic tricks such as multiple exposures or digitally altered images.

"It's really taken me years to understand reflection and [refraction] in the water and how they work," Imboden says. "It's been very rewarding, but sometimes also very difficult."

In every photo shoot, Imboden concentrates on only one or two ideas. This evening she is working with faces and feet. She asks Fleckenstein to float face down in the pool beside the little wooden bridge, holding her breath and raising her head only often enough to fill her lungs with air.

Then she tells McCrory to stand on the bridge, dip one foot into the water and gently press its sole against the side of Fleckenstein's face.

The models must hold absolutely still while Imboden works. Imboden is completely submerged, her camera pointed upward at the models' face and foot and their reflected images on the waterline.

The session lasts more than an hour. By the end, the photographer has exposed 10 or so rolls of 35 millimeter film, or about 360 frames.

During the summer, when the weather is warm, she shoots at least two or three times a week (in winter she teaches at the Maryland Institute, prints negatives and gives lecture-workshops around the country). Each summer she exposes several thousand negatives. But she only makes prints of a few dozen of them, and of those fewer still will ever be exhibited. Imboden is her own most uncompromising critic.

Fears conquered

The daughter of a psychiatrist father and housewife mother, Imboden was born in El Paso, Texas; when she was a year old, her parents moved to Ruxton. She says her early life in Baltimore was unexceptional.

"I went through the usual childhood traumas," says Imboden, whose parents divorced when she was 12.

"I had an older brother who beat me up, and who claims credit for my work today because of that. It was traumatic, but not more than most big brothers picking on their little sisters."

Today, Imboden seems to downplay the effect of those episodes. But she admits they had the effect of putting her more deeply in touch with her feelings.

"I think he really taught me about fear," she says of her brother, John, now a successful doctor living in California. "From that experience I learned to be afraid. I spent a lot of my childhood being afraid."

The fear expressed itself partly in phobias, such as panic over speaking in public, and partly in her nightmares of drowning. "I was afraid of the water, I was terrified of drowning," she said. The fear of water and drowning persisted even after she learned to swim.

As a teen-ager, Imboden showed no particular artistic talent until she enrolled in a summer course in photography at the Maryland Institute during her senior year in high school.

"That was the first time I had done something really well," Imboden recalls. "After that I couldn't imagine myself doing anything except photography."

After high school, Imboden took classes at the Maryland Institute for several years, then earned a B.S. degree from Towson State University in 1978 and an M.F.A. degree from the University of Delaware in 1988.

Around this time Walter Gomez, owner of Baltimore's Gomez Gallery, saw Imboden's photographs at the slide registry of Maryland Art Place, where regional artists keep their work on file. Imboden had submitted slides of her master's thesis show, which included early works like "Mother and Child."

"I was overwhelmed," Gomez recalled. "I was just starting the gallery and decided to go with my gut. Nothing had ever struck me as strongly as Connie's work, so we just made a commitment on the spot to do a show with her."

Gomez gave Imboden her first commercial show in 1988, and he has been a tireless booster of her work ever since, arranging exhibitions across the United States and in Europe and South America.

By the early 1990s, Imboden was exhibiting widely, and museums had begun to buy her work. The prestigious Witkin Gallery represented her in New York. (When the Witkin closed this year, Imboden switched to the Alan Klotz Photo Collect gallery.)

In 1992, the year her first book was published, the Museum of Modern Art in New York bought Imboden's 1988 picture "Dead Silences II." After the MOMA purchase, the price of that print jumped from $300 to $5,000.

At a time when fashions in art change almost as rapidly as fashions in clothing, Imboden's long-term dedication to a single method has made her almost almost unique among contemporary photographers.

"It's very common for a young photographer to have a exciting body of work and then attempt to mutate in new directions only to find that the next phase isn't as energized," said Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

"That wasn't the case with Connie," Ollman said. "She has continued to explore the potential of water as a transformative material, to dig deeper into that inquiry, and she has found it to be for her a terribly nourishing vein."

Ollman, who also wrote the forward to Imboden's most recent book, is planning a major show of her work in 2001. He saw Imboden's portfolio at a photography convention in Maine in 1988 and was so impressed he bought two pictures. The Museum of Photographic Arts became the first museum to collect Imboden's work.

"She has found a metaphor for human evolution as well as psychic and spiritual evolution," Ollman said. "Connie's work has a great deal of wisdom, a depth and emotive strength that I find unique."

Transforming the body

The classical models of the body are the nude figures created by Greek sculptors in the fifth century B.C. These artists imposed a rigorous formal discipline on the body in order to express an ideal of divine perfection.

The distinction between nudity and mere nakedness was memorably stated by art historian Kenneth Clarke in his 1956 book, "The Nude."

"To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and that word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition," Clarke wrote. "The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtones. The vague image it projects in the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous and confident body: the body reformed."

Imboden revels in "nakedness." Her figures, with their all-too-human flaws, are neither divine nor perfect.

"For me, the nude is a way to explore ourselves, not just as ideals, as beings made in God's image, but in terms of our humanity, our psychological and spiritual selves," she says. "The Greeks transformed the body for the sake of an ideal. I transform it for a deeper sense of being human."

In her most recent work, Imboden's pictures challenge the very construction of the human body, often exaggerating distortions caused by water and reflection to the point where it seems, as Ollman wryly notes, "Ms. Imboden wants to rewrite the instruction manual of Creation."

Last year, for example, Imboden photographed the sole of a woman's foot touching that of a man's foot half-submerged in the water.

The image, which the artist later turned 90 degrees so the waterline runs vertically from top to bottom, is readily recognizable as a picture of two feet. Yet the familiar forms and their reflections seem strangely transformed, suggesting at once the monumental stability of giant rock formations and the earthy dynamism of organic, vegetable life.

"That's different from the Greeks," Imboden says. "I love something that's a little odd. That's when something is really beautiful to me. It has to have something new or surprising or different. I love it when there is elegance, but the elegance should be balanced by something strange."

The strangeness Imboden loves also has a dark side, however. In one recent image, for example, a hand seems to emerge from beneath the skin of a woman's breast; in another, a man's head, the mouth opened to scream, floats in the blackness above a body that looks like either a turtle, a dwarf or a deformed fetus.

Such images are profoundly disturbing to some people, though Imboden herself often interprets them quite innocently: the touch so intimate it is felt beneath the skin; the moment a human personality emerges from the chaos of the unconscious.

"Connie has taken the type of deliberate distortion that a photographer like Andre Kertesz used in the 1920s and '30s and brought it to a new level," says Janet Sirmon, director of Alan Klotz Photo Collect in New York, "where the viewer has to look and think about what is being presented because you can't always be sure what it is. She makes the body a kind of visual conundrum."

"There is a deep and primal drama in Imboden's mind," writes Ollman in the forward to Imboden's most recent book.

"Imboden is interested in transformation, in mutation, in transubstantiation. She wants to take the primal protoplasm in her hand; she wants to shape it, to mold it, to reassemble its parts to place a leg or a chin on an elbow, or to make of several parts a living Rorschach."

Far from seeing such explorations as threatening, Imboden believes her pictures are signposts along a road toward deeper self-awareness.

After its unexpected recurrence, for example, the fearful dream of her childhood went away, never to return. It could no longer intimidate the adult artist, though Imboden still remembers it vividly and continues to ponder its significance.

"When I did the earlier work 15 years ago, a lot of people found that controversial," she says. "Every time I have come out with new work it puts the old work in perspective. If you had seen a picture like 'Mother and Child' in 1986, maybe you would have found it controversial, too. But now people accept it as beautiful.

"It's important to deal with the darker side of things, which we tend to repress or ignore," she says. "Art challenges us to look at all these things in a new way."

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