Danse Macabre: Talking with Connie Imboden

For most of her career Connie Imboden, our Summer 2010 featured artist, has aimed her camera at a single subject—the nude body in water—capturing the human figure in transmutations beautiful and grotesque. Poet Susan Ludvigson, long intrigued and inspired by Imboden’s images, wrote the introductory essay to our eight-page interior portfolio; here she poses a few questions to Imboden about her work, including her fairly recent transition from black-and-white to color.

Susan Ludvigson (SL): Now that you’ve started working in color, have you thought about experimenting with other variations on your method? Color seems like a radical change, given how long you worked in black-and-white, and I wonder if it’s opened any other doors to your imagination.

Connie Imboden (CI): Color was a radical change for me. In black-and-white I am forced to look at light and forms that are differentiated by light. For example, in black-and-white, if I have a red shape against a green shape, they will blend into one, but in color, of course, those forms are completely separated. So I come to seeing in color with a strong appreciation for the visual properties of light. The first major door that opened for me was the emotional content of different colors. (Of course this is a new discovery only for me—the rest of the world has known this forever!) Color can be a powerful tool for communication.

The other major change in my seeing has been to play more with motion. In black-and-white, I couldn’t use too much motion because I would lose the visual connection to the form, but because color is based more in reality, less abstracted than b&w, I can put movement in the water, and it becomes another way to explore the human form.

SL: I’d be interested, and I’m sure GR readers would be as well, to know more about how you achieve the rich yet subtle color in the new work. You’ve talked about using a digital camera, and I assume you’ve found a way to get the color directly with the camera, but the blues, especially, almost appear, in some cases, to be painted onto the image after it’s printed. I’m guessing that you’re catching the color of the water as it slides over the image somehow, but the process is intriguing and mysterious.

CI: The first time I used the digital camera underwater (in a huge housing!) was the first time I began playing with color underwater. I was so pleased with the quality of the colors—the rich and eerie blues and greens, and it reminded me of the excitement I felt when I first starting exploring light and water. The water absorbs most of the colors except blues, so the figure underwater is cool toned while above the water it’s warm toned. This has become a new way for me to look at that relationship of the body above and below water. It becomes very interesting to me when the cool and warm tones interact in some unexpected ways, usually through reflections and movement of the water. If the reflection is of the body under the water, it will be cool, and if that reflection is blending in some way with the figure above water, there are interesting interactions of these cool and warm tones. The color becomes a way to differentiate the real and the reflected.

SL: How do you see the relationship between your own Jungian perspective and your father’s Freudian approach to the unconscious in your complete focus on the body as subject? How might that be at work in the context of your current ambivalence about changing direction?

CI: When I first starting exploring the body in the early 1980s, it never occurred to me there was any significance in my choice of using water. I always said that I liked the interaction of light with water and its distortive qualities. It didn’t occur to me until much later that I could be drawn to water because of my fear of the water. Now it is quite obvious to me that my early traumas around swimming pools, which led to this fear, played an important role in my initial fascination. This “Freudian” impulse can certainly explain my initial attraction but does not explain my continued involvement. As I mentioned earlier, I often make images that don’t feel like my personal expressions, yet I resonate deeply with them. I cannot explain where they come from. Tapping into the pool of the Jungian collective unconscious full of rich archetypes, common to all humanity, offers an explanation of these experiences. While it is undeniable that I “make” these images, I don’t believe I am fully responsible for them. Many artists, poets, and creative people have talked about this experience as Matisse did when he said: “I have been no more than a medium, as it were.”

This creative process often leaves me with the feeling that I am not always in control, at times resulting in self-doubt about the process. imboden-02-19-09-67It is hard to proceed when this doubt takes over, and so I usually find it necessary to pause in the work and take time for reflection. So far, this part of the process leads to renewing my commitment to the work and discovering some new aspect of the body to explore and photograph.

SL: What would you say is your primary challenge to yourself at this point in your career?

CI:I feel that I am in the midst of many challenges right now. When I was printing in the darkroom, I was completely confident in my abilities. I knew that my job was to interpret and articulate my image, and while it was often challenging, I was a master of the craft (after thirty-five years!). Now, I am facing a new craft, with the same basic principles but a multitude of new choices and new methods. I have gone from being a master printer to a novice. Not only is that humbling, but many times frustrating. I must say, though, I am enjoying the learning process and, like many photographers, I am a bit of a technology nerd.

Another major challenge I am facing now is not a new one, but it feels more intense at this point in my life. I have essentially photographed the same thing for almost thirty years. Am I beating a dead horse? Am I stuck? Is it time to move on? This question was first posed to me when I was leaving grad school, and the visiting professor, my instructor, and the entire class told me it was time to move on. That was in 1988. I have asked myself that question many, many times over the years, usually when I am stuck and can’t see anything new.

SL: What would you like to say about your work that nobody has yet asked you?

CI: Is the work personal?

Yes, it is extremely personal because I have honed my vision over years and years, making decisions about what works and what doesn’t work in the images. Figuring out what I care about visually and what I don’t care about. And so the vision is completely mine and personal.

No, it does not feel like the work is expressing the details of my life or experience. They are not alien expressions to me, but they are not ones that I can relate to specific experiences. Often it takes time for me to understand an image, and what it means to me usually changes over time. I never intend an image to mean something specific. I never think of an image and make it. I explore with my eyes.

Even though I work very hard at making the images, they do not feel like my expressions. I guess it is what Plato meant when he said that artists are out of their minds when they create.


Susan Ludvigson, Professor Emerita at Winthrop University, was the 2014 winner of the James Dickey Prize for Poetry from Five Points magazine. She has published eight collections of poems with LSU Press, including Escaping the House of Certainty (2006). The first line of “Dead,” appearing here, is the title of her next collection. Most recently, her poems can be found in the Yale Review and the Southern Review.