Transforming the body, revealing a hidden world

Photographer Connie Imboden uses water and light to explore the dark side of humanity.


November 04, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Photography, perhaps more than any other medium, has been central to the postmodernist movement in art and to all the controversy it has inspired.

In contrast to the early years of modernism, when painters like Picasso and Matisse were scandalizing audiences with their willful distortions of familiar forms, in recent years it has been photographers who have most resolutely pushed back the boundaries of the acceptable in art.

In doing so, they have forced society to deal with difficult and uncomfortable truths in new and unexpected ways. One has only to think of the controversies provoked by such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Sally Mann and others to realize how far we have come from the days when a mere painting or sculpture could shock.

One reason photography has been so crucial to debates over such issues as morality, censorship and public funding of the arts is that photographs play on the tension between reality and illusion more cunningly than any other medium.

A powerful psychological compulsion urges us to see photographs as fragments of the real world, whereas in truth they are only arrangements of line and color on a flat sheet of paper.

The photographs of Baltimore artist Connie Imboden straddle the boundary between modern and postmodern art. They are at once precise visual records of actual events and metaphors for the consciousness that perceives those events. They present reality as a dense structure of visual illusions and at the same time offer those illusions as keys to the invisible reality of human subjectivity.

Rearranging the body

Imboden, who earlier this year was the subject of an important retrospective at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and whose work will be on view at Baltimore's Gomez Gallery through Nov. 24, has devoted the last 18 years of her career to the exploration of a single form: images of the naked human body created by the reflection and refraction of light.

Imboden's earliest pictures were of a model floating in a pool that showed both the part of the model's body above the waterline and her reflected image, which appeared to lie just below the mirrorlike surface.

As the work evolved, Imboden complicated the situation by placing a mirror on the bottom of the pool, which increased the number of reflections as seen from above. Finally, Imboden took her camera underwater and photographed the model's reflections from below the water's surface.

At the same time, the photographer noticed that as light passed from air to water it was refracted, or bent, around the model's form. She trained her eye to see these minute distortions and incorporate them into the structure of her pictures.

The results were startling. Imboden discovered that by carefully controlling such elements as lighting and camera angle, she could rearrange the familiar forms of the human body until they were literally unrecognizable. One critic wrote that Imboden's pictures were "rewriting the instruction manual of Creation."

Liquid dreams

Yet Imboden's radical transformations of the body were never intended merely to shock. Rather, her goal was to create a new conception of the body's appearance as a way of arriving at a deeper understanding of human nature, especially what she called the "dark side" -- the hidden world of dreams, desires and anxieties that reside in the irrational, unconscious mind.

Some may wonder whether Imboden hasn't succeeded too well in uncovering this hidden reality. Some of her images can be profoundly disturbing even to the artist herself. One photograph in the Gomez show, for example, seems to depict a mutilated male head, as from a gunshot wound. Another depicts the reflected image of a woman whose arms and legs seem cruelly elongated below her oddly shrunken head.

Recently, Imboden sat down to talk about the evolution of her art, its meaning and the direction it may take in the future:

You've published a book called The Beauty of Darkness, and you have said that one of the things you've tried to do in your work is find beauty in the dark side of human nature. But in this latest work, do you ever think you might have gone too far?

Isn't that my job? To go as far as I can? And how do we know we've gone too far, anyway? Seriously. How can we go "too far" if it's honest?

A lot of your recent images seem very horrific -- the mirror images with ragged edges that look as if they could slice the figures; the water images like that male head that seems wounded in a particularly gruesome way ...

When I'm doing this stuff, I'm not thinking, "OK, now I'm making a disturbing image." I'm putting the reflection together with the real and trying to make interesting relationships and forms with lines and patterns and light -- putting all that stuff together. And when I get a combination that works, then I go into the darkroom and print it. And then I look at it and I go, "Oh, my god, that's disturbing!"

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