Exploring the Human Form: The Artistic Journey of Connie Imboden
Connie Imboden is the artistic genius behind this month’s Focus cover. The image, titled “Fire” is part of a series of photographs that use water and reflection to explore and experiment with the human form. Born in El Paso, Texas, Imboden relocated to Baltimore inn the first year of her life, and has been there ever since. The only artist in a family of doctors, Imboden developed her talent and polished her skills at the University of Delaware and the Maryland Institute of Art (where she is now a teacher). Her stunning photographs have shown in an extensive range of group and solo shows at galleries and museums around Europe, Latin America and the United States. Her work is represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France, and many other public and private collections in Europe and the Americas. Recently, I recently took a look inside the soul behind this photographer and I was inspired by what I found.
Focus: Let’s talk about the things you photograph, did you always have an interest in the human form – have you been working with it for the last 30 years, or did you start off shooting different things?
CI: I started off shooting lots of different things. I tried landscapes, trees, portraits, self-portraits, just really experimenting and looking to see what the world and photography had to offer and after about ten years of that I started to focus more on the work that I am doing now. I started off pretty slowly: looking at the way that light reflects off of water, and in the water I started to see reflections and as I looked at reflections I started to see the layers under the water and above the water and I wanted something interesting to put in that whole mix so I started working with the human figure. I just loved it, and it’s fascinated me for the last 20 years.
Focus: What do you think it is about the human body that is so inspiring for you?
CI: Well, I guess it’s the same thing that’s inspired people for hundreds of years. The body’s been the most popular subject for artists throughout the centuries and what’s wonderful is that it’s also been the most controversial. I think that it’s amazing that in this world we are still sensitive about looking at naked bodies, why should that be such an issue? I think that the body is a wonderful way for us to look at ourselves psychologically, spiritually and aesthetically. One of the things I challenge my students to do is to look at the body non-judgmentally so that when looking at a body that is not classically perfect – that has wrinkles or scars or sags or droops – instead of looking at the sags and droops to look at the line and the form of the body and to see it in an aesthetic quality rather than a judgmental quality.
Focus: Do they have a hard time doing that?
CI: Oh yeah, absolutely, that’s really, really tough to do.
Focus: How do you find your models and how do you help them to feel comfortable exposing themselves?
CI: I don’t really have any trouble finding models, I have friends that want to do it and word gets around, for the last 10-15 years I have had more models than I can really work with. I think there are two types of people in the world: people who like to take their clothes off and people who really don’t. I’m lucky to be able to tap into those who do and use 11 of them to be my models.
Focus: How about you – are you sensitive about your own body?
CI: Yes, yes. I think it is really interesting – here I’ve been photographing the body for 20 years and I talk about seeing it in this non-judgmental way and I teach workshops on this and yet I still seem to have hang-ups about my own body. It’s incredible that this is the focus of my life.
Focus: Because you use nude models, have you ever run into censorship issues?
CI: I find that this is such a potent subject. It boggles my mind how many times I get censored – it is amazing to me because I don’t find my work to be offensive – it is not sexual or pornographic. I think it’s sensual and I think it’s disturbing, but I don’t see why photographs of the body should be censored while we allow such incredible violence on television and movies and accept that as the norm – I think our values are totally crazy.
Focus: You mentioned violence, is there anything else you find offensive? Is there any art that you think should be censored?
CI: I think that there’s different venues for art and so many galleries share spaces with other galleries or groups and in those cases you truly have to be sensitive – there’s a gallery for instance in a hospital and I think it would be really inappropriate to put particularly disturbing images up, that would be something that should be done with a lot of thought and a lot of care. But, if it’s a gallery or museum specifically for showing art I don’t think there should be censorship. There should be warnings if work is explicitly sexual, or violent or disturbing, but I don’t think there should be censorship.
Focus: Do you feel like censorship and the things that people are offended by have gotten more or less stringent over the 30 years you have been in this business?
CI: I’m sorry to say that I think it’s gotten worse over the years, but you’re also talking to a hippie from the 70s, things were great then, things have tightened up since. Even in the last 20 years things have tightened up – I find it very difficult – it’s like we’re becoming more prudish, like we’re going backwards.
Focus: So you were always an artist, since you were young?
CI: Well, I discovered photography when I was 17. Up to that point I showed no artistic inclination, I showed no inclination toward anything actually and my mother – I don’t know how she knew to do this – but she handed me a catalog for summer courses at the Maryland Institute and suggested that I take a photography class and so I did. It was wonderful because it was like I had found my own people at that point, other artists who were a little strange. I loved photography right away, I was good at it and I just felt passionate about it. Slowly I realized that I really am not a verbal person – that I am a visual person – that made all the difference in the world to me when I started to be able to communicate visually instead of just relying on words so it was a huge turning point. And, I just turned 50 so it’s been a passion that’s really stayed with me.
Focus: Did you ever have interest in any other mediums?
CI: I studied painting for a while and I wasn’t really good at it, but I liked it and I still think about that wonderful meditative quality. It is a different kind of meditation than you get into when you are photographing. I often think it might be fun to go back into that, but it would be just for fun, it wouldn’t be anything I would pursue seriously for exhibition.
Focus: What about motion – any interest in film?
CI: I have enough trouble trying to deal with 1/60 of a second. It’s different, it’s way different.
I really love the slice of time that photography offers. Video and film are really about documenting or interpreting the world as it is where as still photography, specially
black and white photography can go into a more abstract place, therefore it can be more surrealistic and to me more interesting.
Focus: The way that you use water in your work certainly has a surreal effect on the images, can you tell me how the idea to incorporate water and its inherent properties into your photographs?
CI: Well, it came about visually rather than as an idea – I didn’t think about it but I discovered it through just looking at light reflecting off of water and just really liking the way it looked. I am aware that water is a very powerful symbol. It is talked about in Jungian psychology as symbolizing the unconscious and it’s referred to in a lot of religion as symbolizing re-birth and even in my own life I’ve got a lot of issues with water. I had a big fear of the water when I was a kid and did up to being an adult until recently, within the last ten years when I started going underwater making images. So I understand that water is a really powerful symbol – socially, spiritually and personally but that has nothing to do with the reason I started photographing it, I just liked the way it looks – it was just as simple as that. Or, as unconscious a decision as that.
Focus: Where did your fear of the water come from?
CI: I think that it came from a couple of different sources. I was always afraid as a kid, I was just a fearful kid and some neighborhood kids were playing in a pool and trying to drown me and I thought it was a big joke to them but I took it a little too seriously and it really freaked me out. That was one incident. I also had a dream when I was really young; a repeating dream – a nightmare – that I was drowning and that was really terrifying to me.
Focus: Did the dreams start before or after the incident with the kids?
CI: I think it was before, I think I was real little then. So, it all sort of combined deep in the psyche to form a phobia.
Focus: Talk me through the technical aspects of creating the water photographs – I assume you and the models both are in the water?
CI: For the last ten years I have been photographing underwater. I use a Nikon’s RS which is a magnificent through the lens underwater 35mm camera that they no longer make, unfortunately. It has a dedicated underwater strobe with it and instead of attaching the strobe to the camera I have an assistant who holds it. If I take it off the camera I can get different angles with the light which is really important to me, if I kept the strobe right on the camera, I’d be getting a really flat forward lighting which I really don’t like. A lot of people ask me if I use some sort of breathing apparatus – which I don’t – I just hold my breath and have developed good healthy lungs. I use lead weights around my waist to keep me down, which if someone had told me that when I had a fear of water would have really freaked me out. Another thing that is so cool about this camera is that above the water the camera and the strobe are so heavy that it’s a pain to take from my studio to the swimming pool, but in the water they are perfectly balanced, there’s no need for a tripod. I love to explore with my camera and in the water I can explore all around my subject – I can go under, above and all around the different sides – it opened up a huge world for me when I started going underwater.
Focus: It is surprising that you don’t need any sort of balancing equipment because the pictures have such a still quality to them – the models and the water both seem completely still.
CI: That’s actually very hard to do. We all try not to move and even not to breath. Breathing can change it all – breathing can cause ripples in the water. There is a wonderful line where Edward Weston was talking about photographing nudes and he was looking at it in such detail and he said even the breathing 13 can change the line and I think about that often when I am in the water and a model takes a breath and all these ripples go bounding out from her.
Focus: How do you go about setting up the shots – I know it is instinctual – does that mean that the models are kind of lying still while you are shooting trying to get what you are looking for? How many times would you say you click the shutter before you get what you want?
CI: Boy, that is really tough, I think I can shoot hundreds of rolls of film on the same basic idea and same basic approach before I get something that really satisfies me but again that is because I am exploring and it is not something that I thought of ahead of time, so I am just exploring and experimenting and playing until I really come up with something that satisfies me. For the most part the models stay still and I do the moving, sometimes the models will move, but that is more when I am just looking and not actively shooting. The input from the model is really important to me. I usually work with the same models over and over again, sometimes for years. Before I ever shoot I show them the work we did from the last shoot and we talk about it – we talk about what works and what doesn’t work and why and so we’re really on the same wavelength when we go into the water and they have a sense of what I appreciate and I have a sense of what they can do and what their bodies are about so it is a real process of communicating. I don’t think that I ever have been able to work with a model one or two times and come up with something – it’s a long, long process for me – getting to know someone else’s body.
Focus: As a photographer, how do you achieve the dramatic contrast in your photographs, where the areas illuminated are vibrant while the surrounding areas remain engulfed in darkness? Could you please explain your technique for achieving this striking lighting effect?
CI: I photograph in a black bottom swimming pool that I had done to do these photographs in 1994 and I photograph at night. Unless I light it, I am not getting any of the environment, or the outside of the pool or house or yard or anything – the only thing that lights up is what’s in the water, so that is how I get that black background and to me that is important because it simplifies the whole statement and I like the images and the graphic elements to be as simple and clear as possible.
Focus: How did you create the captivating fire effect in the photograph titled “Fire,” which graces the cover of this issue? I’m curious to know the techniques and processes you employed to achieve such a striking and realistic depiction of fire in the image.
CI: It’s actually just water. That was one of the earlier ones, when I was photographing in a stream in Baltimore County. I had a model that was submerged except for her face in the stream and the water was just rushing really fast and there was bright sunlight hitting her face – it looks like fire – it looks like she is breaking through some sort of fire barrier or something.
Focus: After exploring photography from a water perspective, did you transition to working with mirrors? I’m intrigued to learn how your venture into mirror photography came about. What inspired you to experiment with mirrors as a medium, and what artistic techniques do you employ to capture unique and captivating images through the use of mirrors?
CI: I go back and forth – I started the mirrors in 1989 when the summer was ending, fall was starting and it was getting to cold to work outside. I started working with just plastic mirrors, taking the backing off in places so that as you held the mirror up it was transparent where I had taken the backing off but it was still reflecting where I hadn’t. I could use two models then – one behind the mirror, showing through and one reflecting off the front. I’ve been photographing in mirrors for years – sometimes combining two different bodies into one or taking parts from one and parts from another and creating another body or having two bodies relating to one another. It offers me a lot of parallel opportunities that the water doesn’t offer me. In the water I’m working with underwater, above water kind of surface reflection and in the mirrors I am working behind the mirror, in front of the mirror and the texture of the surface. There are a lot of similarities and the two series have communicated nicely with each other over the years – one has helped inform the other.
Focus: Do you use specialized fun house mirrors or similar unconventional mirrors in your photography, or do you employ different types of mirrors to achieve specific artistic effects and compositions? I’m curious to know if there are any unique qualities or characteristics associated with the mirrors you utilize in your creative process.
CI: They’re just regular mirrors I got from a plastic store. They are 4×8 foot mirrors and I have developed over the years different ways of taking the backing off. Sometimes I do it with a paint remover, sometimes I’ll scratch it off with a razor blade and it all adds different effects to it. That’s actually part of what’s got me interested in going back into painting. I see how the marks of my hand on the mirror start to affect the images and I am very attracted to that.
Focus: Could you elaborate on your characterization of your work as “disturbing”? I’m interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the emotions and reactions you intend to evoke through your art. Furthermore, in addition to “disturbing,” what other descriptive terms or phrases would you use to capture the essence of your artistic expression?
CI: I think that some of it is disturbing and some of it is not, I like to think that it runs the gamut. Actually when I make a photograph one of the ways that I gauge if it is successful or not is if it’s at once beautiful in an aesthetic sense and also disturbing so that there’s an edge to it. When my work works for me it’s going into a new place, it’s not doing something that I’ve done before and just by that nature of doing something new, I think there’s an element of being disturbing or at least uncomfortable because we haven’t been there before. I don’t think of these images but I go out exploring and looking and finding and really follow that intuitive urge and sometimes that goes to very light, beautiful, aesthetic places and sometimes it goes to dark places, what psychologists would call the shadow side. I believe that’s part of the process. I think that we have to embrace both sides to fully participate in the process.
Focus: Your artistic creations possess a distinct authorship that is readily recognizable, yet simultaneously, you display a dedication to the evolution of your work and the constant pursuit of fresh and innovative imagery. Could you delve into your process of balancing your unique artistic vision while continuously striving to create novel and distinctive pieces? I am intrigued to learn how you navigate this delicate equilibrium between maintaining your artistic identity and embracing the exploration of new creative avenues.
CI: I’m constantly pushing myself, I’m constantly trying to see things in a new way and the more I photograph the same thing, the harder that gets. I’ve been photographing this series for 20 years and sometimes it feels very difficult to get to an area where I see something new. It really is not interesting or satisfying to me until I get to that point so that drive there will not allow me to continue to repeat myself and just stay in this secure place where I am comfortable. I think that’s an important piece in keeping the work progressing. Also, I believe that working intuitively and working over a long period of time is the best way to develop style. I think style happens once you do your work over a long period of time, you have a style – it’s not a gift, it’s not a talent, it’s just something that happens when you do your work, especially for 30 years.
Focus: What fuels your continuous drive and motivation to persist and progress forward despite achieving success? I’m curious to understand the underlying factors that inspire and push you to keep moving forward in your artistic journey.
CI: I don’t know – sometimes I think it is something that should be diagnosed. It’s not really the drive to be successful that sustains me; it’s the fascinating places that the creative process takes me. It challenges me to look at myself and look at the world and I’m so lucky that I have the opportunity to teach this stuff so I get challenged all the time and that pushes me to think and progress…
Focus: In what ways does your relationship with your students impact and inspire your artistic journey, fostering the generation of new ideas? I’m interested to explore the influence that engaging with your students has on your creative process and how their perspectives and experiences contribute to your own artistic growth and inspiration.
CI: Absolutely, even when I give talks to people about the work I do and how I do it. During the question & answer period, I often get suggestions that are really interesting and things I wouldn’t have thought of. I love to put information out there so I can get ideas and suggestions and energy back.
Focus: Are there specific sources of influence that shape your work, both within the realm of photography and beyond? I’m curious to know about the artistic or creative influences that have played a significant role in shaping your artistic vision and approach.
CI: Right now I am influenced by Carl Jung. I’ve been reading Jung’s books on and off for the last few years and I find that the way Jung explains the creative process makes a lot of sense to me. Another one would be the British painter Francis Bacon, I really enjoy the raw intensity of his expression – I feel like his motions are just right there in the quality and the brushstroke of his paintings. I admire him for the honesty and intensity of his expression. I admire Sally Mann, Joel-Peter Witkin, Diane Arbus, Edward Weston, some of the classics
Focus: Do you collect any art?
CI: Yes, I do. Actually collected some Imogene Cunningham and Ruth Berhardt when I was younger and the work was a lot cheaper since then I’ve been collecting mostly unknown artists – I do a lot of trading for artwork, I collect a lot of painting and sculpture as well.
Focus: Are you in the pool everyday?
CI: I do some traveling in the summer so it is not every day, but when I am here it’s about 4 or 5 nights a week of shooting. I shoot a lot of film.
Focus: Then you develop it all as well? CI: Yes, I have an assistant who helps me in the dark room and does a lot of that stuff for me.
Focus: Let’s delve into the technical aspects of your photography practice. Could you share insights into your preferred camera equipment? I’m interested in learning about your favorite camera and the reasons behind your choice.
CI: Underwater it is a Nikon’s RS which is no longer made. When I am working in the studio, I just recently have gone to the Contax 645 which I absolutely love. Before that I was using the 2 1/4 square and it was just a little bit too heavy for me to hand hold so I went to the slightly smaller format and I just love this camera. It is auto focus, which I don’t use that much, because with the reflections there’s too many decisions about focusing to leave that up to the camera, but I just am crazy about the quality of the lenses and the camera itself fits in my hand real nice – it’s just a very functional smooth camera.
Focus: When it comes to film photography, do you have a particular favorite film that you gravitate towards? I’m curious to know which film stock holds a special place in your creative process and why it resonates with you.
CI: I found a combination of film and chemicals that works, so I just don’t change it. In the 35 mm I use T-Max 400 and in the studio I use Tri-X 220 and I use Ilford paper – it’s real standard. The same stuff I have used for 20 years – well, the T-Max hasn’t been around that long…
Focus: New York is often hailed as the epicenter of the art world, and I’m interested to hear your perspective on this notion. How do you perceive the art scene in New York, and in what ways do you believe your work aligns with or contributes to the vibrant artistic landscape of the city?
CI: I think NY does certainly set art trends and if you want to see what is cutting edge today in the art world; certainly NY is the place to go. I’ve exhibited quite a bit in Europe and in Latin America and I find the reception to my work is so much more immediate and enthusiastic and genuine in Latin America and Europe than it tends to be in the US and I think that is just prudishness about the human body.
Information about purchasing Connie Imboden’s work can be found at the following website address on the net: www.connieimboden.com