Body Language

With strobe light flashes in her backyard pool, photographer Connie Imboden explores the shape of the subconscious.

Cover Story

September 12, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

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.

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