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September 27, 1999 - Image 12

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The Michigan Daily, 1999-09-27

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12A - The Michigan Daily - Monday, September 27, 1999
Photographer plumbs inner depths to get right image

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, Md., went to art school
and studied photography. Twenty years
later, her work is admired and exhibit-
ed all over the world. Her first book of
photographs, "Out of Darkness," was
published in 1992. Her second book is
"The Beauty of Darkness."
But her success wouldn't have hap-
pened, 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 pic-
tures of rocks and trees. She did por-
traits and weddings. The pictures were
not very good, and her clients were
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 bot-
tom 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
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 disturb-
ing 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 repre-
sented 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 frighten-
ing, even though this time I was more
intrigued by itthan afraid.
"But somehow the photographs
urged me on. It was a matter of listen-
ing 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 psycho-
logical level.'
Imboden eventually came to see
water, both in her dreams and in her
pictures, as a synibol for birth and
transformation and as a metaphor for
the different levels of human con-
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.
It's a warm summer evening.
Imboden, wearing a black bathing suit
and goggles and carrying a sophisticat-

Photographer Connie Imboden works in her backyard pool.

ed waterproof camera, floats weight-
lessly just below the surface of the
small swimming pool in her back yard.
Two models, Brooke McCrory and
Terrie Fleckenstein, carefully arrange
their bodies in the water and on a nar-
row wooden footbridge that bisects the
pool. The models have worked with
Imboden before and know what to
The bridge has handrails from which
loops and ropes dangle, like a child's
swing set. The models use these sup-
ports 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
Though the pool is less than 6 feet
deep, Imboden wears lead weights

around her waist to keep her from pop-
ping up 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 photogra-,
pher's strobe.
Imboden, holding her breath under-
water, 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, dra-
matically 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 under-
stand 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 con-
centrates 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, even
though the poses are physically tiring.
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 enough to work out-
doors, she shoots at least two or three
times a week (in winter she teaches at
the Maryland Institute, prints nega-
tives 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.
As a teen-ager, Imboden showed no
particular artistic talent until she
enrolled in.a summer course in pho-
tography at the Maryland Institute dur-
ing 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 photog-
After high school, Imboden tookr
classes at the Maryland Institute for.
several years, then earned a bachelor
of science degree from Towson State
University in 1978 and a master's
degree in fine arts from the University;
of Delaware in 1988.
Her two years at Delaware were cru-
cial, she says. Because she was a grad-
uate assistant, she had to teach classes

despite her fear of public speaking.
Through teaching, Imboden not only
developed a new sense of confidence
but learned to critically evaluate htr
own work.
Around this time Walter Gom.
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."
Gomez instantly recognized a unique
Gomez gave Imboden her first com-
mercial show in 1988, and he has b
a tireless booster of her work ever
since, arranging exhibitions across the
United States and in Europe and South
By the early 1990s, Imboden was
exhibiting widely and museums had
begun to buy her work. The prestigious
Witkin Gallery represented her in New
In 1992, the year her first book was
published, the Museum of Moderni/@
in New York bought Imboden's 1988
picture "Dead Silences II." After the
MOMA purchase, the price of that
print jumped from S300 to $5.000.
At a time when fashions in art
change almost as rapidly as fashions in
clothing, Imboden's long-term dedica-
tion to a single method has made her
almost almost unique among contem-
porary photographers.
"It's very common for a young pl'
tographer to have an exciting body ,
work and then attempt to mutate in
new directions only to find that the
next phase isn't as energized," said
Arthur Olman, director of the
Museum of Photographic Arts in San
"That wasn't the case with Connie,
Oilman said. "She has continued to
explore the potential of water as a
transformative material, to dig dee4
into that inquiry, and she has found it
to be for her a terribly nourishing
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 dw
or a deformed fetus.
Such images are profoundly disturb-
ing to some people, though Imbodeti.
herself often interprets them quite
innocently: the touch so intimate itis
felt beneath the skin;.the moment a
human personality emerges from the
chaos of the uncnscious.
"Conne heas taken the type of delib-,
erate distortion that a photographer
like Andre Kertesz used in the 19
and '30s and brought it to a new leve
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. "0.


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