Baltimore photographer Connie Imboden's work is shown in Paris and New York

November 29, 1992|By Louise Sheldon | Louise Sheldon,Contributing Writer

PARIS -- Not far from where unruly mobs once stormed the Bastille, the photographs of a Baltimore artist are presenting to "the city of light" a new vision of photography.

At the Galerie Suzel Berna in an old quarter newly revived with the arrival of Paris' second opera house, Baltimorean Connie Imboden is holding her first exhibition in France. Simultaneously, a two-man show including her photographs has opened in New York at the Witkin Gallery, and her book, "Out of Darkness," has come off the presses in Switzerland.

In the Paris show, Ms. Imboden limits her photographic milieu to water. It becomes a liberating medium that soothes, embraces and lends buoyancy to the human body. In these spare black-and-white silver gelatin prints, her female figures float or hover below the surface, luxuriating in an ethereal other world where elongated limbs resemble floating reeds, and the double images of reflected faces, suggesting the multiple viewpoints of Picasso portraits, give hints of the communication between the conscious and the unconscious.

These photographs seem to transmit the actual experience of floating. As immersion in water lulls our minds into sensual incoherence, so in these pictures reality toys with irreality.

Connie Imboden's photographs are not of individuals, or even of whole bodies. She concentrates on heads, legs, arms or torsos photographed above, below and through the water. Her images are timeless. They speak of the universality of the female figure as known to us through history, mythology and literature. The body of a woman rises through the water with all the solidity and dynamism of the Winged Victory of Samothrace; a face emerging in an aureole of pure light, in which strands of hair form a tiara, suggests a presence as powerful as that of England's Elizabeth I. A thigh massively distorted by the watery lens calls to mind the contrapposto, the asymmetrical attitude of Green and Renaissance sculpture.

Though Ms. Imboden is a conjurer of magic, technology does not play a major role in her art. Her sleight of hand involves no super TC cameras with computer chips and digital read-outs. She uses a 30-year-old Rollei for normal shooting and a Japanese Nikonos under water. Ms. Imboden's methods involve patient % 5/8 experimentation, lengthy trial and retrial with indefatigable models. The things that happen in her photographs are occasionally the result of unintended accidents.

She discovered that brilliant sunlight created neon-like halos in irregular patterns of the water that lapped about an emerging head. The halos suggest waves of energy emanating from the brain. It is this accidental connection with the intangible and the spiritual that make Ms. Imboden's work unique.

There is no manipulation of the photograph in her work. She uses no double exposures. What happens is the combined effects of water, sky, varying light and reflection. The miracle of water is that it acts as a lens itself, and the trick that Ms. Imboden has mastered is to make it work to cause distortion and refraction.

Experimenting with a shallow pool lined with black plastic, a borrowed hot tub and natural streams, Ms. Imboden has made amazing discoveries. In a hot tub inside a greenhouse, she has found that reflected greenery gives a shimmering effect to the watery background much like the quick, visible brush strokes of impressionist painters. In winter, reflected leafless tree branches appear to spring from a partially immersed head like the flow of thoughts or dreams.

A body under water, photographed from above, loses definition when the water is cloudy, for water has its own character and properties. Yet photographed under water, skin becomes more clearly visible than in the air, with every mark and blemish relentlessly exposed.

A figure lit from beneath the water achieves extraordinary effects. Ripples near the surface trap light in a manner that resembles sleek silk draping a neck or leg.

Ms. Imboden no longer gives titles to her works. She prefers to let the viewer make his or her own interpretation, for her experiments in photography, much like contemporary painting, delve deep into the human psyche.

That Ms. Imboden's art has impressed European observers, as well as American, is evident in the warm response of critics and viewers to the Paris show. At the book-signing for Ms. Imboden's "Out of Darkness" in Paris earlier this month, Professor Robert Pujade, one of the organizers of the International Photography Meeting held annually in Arles in July, spoke of her work. He praised the uniqueness and originality of her methods, in which he "sensed a quest for understanding her own gender, a woman exploring and examining the female form in a creative and evocative way that perhaps male artists never have."

Ms. Imboden, Mr. Pujade said, "Explores two sides of woman, one rather external and obvious and the other intimate and mysterious."

In Paris, the magazine Photographie and four newspapers, including Le Monde and La Liberation, have covered the show favorably, and international interest continues unabated. Two solo exhibitions of the Baltimore photographer's work will be held in Switzerland, and a solo and a group exhibition will be held in the south of France, all in the spring of 1993. Several Imboden photographs, in addition to those already in the collection, were purchased for the French Bibliotheque Nationale.

CONNIE IMBODEN

The Nye Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St., will hold a reception and book signing for Connie Imboden's book "Out of Darkness" from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 12.

A special limited edition with an original signed print will also be available. For more information, call (410) 752-2080.

Ms. Imboden's show in New York at the Witkin Gallery, 415 W. Broadway, runs through Dec. 5. For more information, call (212) 925-5510.

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