Current body of work is of bodies in water


The fluid shapes in Imboden's photographs are what the camera captures just below the surface

Art Column


Connie Imboden's luminous photographs of the naked human body in water, on view at Heineman Myers gallery in Bethesda, have always raised intriguing questions regarding the nature of photographic truth.

Camera images may seem like straightforward transcriptions from nature, but they are, in fact, complex illusions whose uncanny resemblance to the real world imposes a powerful psychological hold over us. The peculiar power of photography lies in its ability to compel belief in the truthfulness of the image - even though the "reality" it purports to represent exists only in our minds.

Imboden's newest work is a continuation of her decades-long exploration of this tension between image and reality. Her subject is the human form transfigured through the reflective and refractive properties of water, and her stark, black-and-white pictures of male and female bodies, with their oddly distorted limbs and mysterious juxtapositions of skin, bone and hair, are endowed with the hallucinatory clarity of a dream or a nightmare.

Yet the point of Imboden's art never has been merely to produce shocking images - or beautiful ones, for that matter. Rather, it is to re-envision the body as a metaphor for the soul and its passages. Imboden has often spoken of her work as an exploration of the "dark side" of human nature, by which she means not simply the propensity for evil but the whole hidden realm of the unconscious mind. She draws particular inspiration from the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who theorized the existence of a personal and collective unconscious whose irrational, amoral urges ultimately drive all human behavior.

Imboden's imagery is the result of sophisticated photographic techniques that enable her to capture the transformations the body appears to undergo when viewed along the interface of air and water, light and dark. Most of the pictures were shot in the artist's backyard hot tub at night using an electronic flash that allowed the film to record only the parts of the models' bodies that lay below the water's surface. Since the models' bodies were mostly out of the water, the camera read the areas below the surface as delicate ribbons of flesh floating weightlessly in an inky black void.

Many of these images are hardly recognizable as human at all. They resemble strange sea creatures, the stems and leaves of exotic plants, the petals of flowers or the soft skins of succulent vegetables and fruit. They call to mind ghostly apparitions of the dead, lost souls in a watery eternity, insubstantial glimmerings in the night. (Oddly, none of these supernatural presences, even the most monstrous, look like alien creatures from another planet: It turns out that, even to the unconscious mind, the things we fear most, as well as those we most love, are rooted in a world that feels deeply familiar.)

Imboden's images are "about" primal emotions and the unconscious fears and desires that motivate us on the most basic levels. Yet her technique is rigorously scientific, objective and rational. She doesn't resort to fuzzy, soft-focus effects to evoke the murky world of the unconscious, nor does she manipulate her images on a computer. She is firmly in the tradition of "straight" photography pioneered by artists like Edward Weston, who insisted on rigorous economy of means and technical simplicity.

Unlike Weston, however, Imboden isn't interested in photographing vegetables as if they were nudes, or nudes as if they were vegetables; she has no Deist or pantheist axes to grind. For her, the universe is shaped entirely within us, not given from without, and the "truth" of her images lies not in the worldly perceptions of our conscious minds, but in the vast, barely explored realm below rational awareness where our deepest humanity lies.

Connie Imboden: Re-Formations runs through May 13 at Heineman Myers Contemporary Art, 4728 Hampden Lane in Bethesda. Call 301-951-7900.

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