Judy Dater: Human nature

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday April 18, 2018
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Since first seeing "Maggie Smoking," a frank, implicitly carnal picture shot in 1970 by Berkeley-based photographer Judy Dater, it has been impossible to get it out of mind. In it, a feline blond artist in jeans is sitting in a white rattan chair, unselfconsciously naked to the waist. She could be a youngish Marlene Dietrich, if Dietrich, notorious for taking viewers hostage with that arresting gaze and insinuating attitude of hers, had been a laid-back Californian. "People were easier about nakedness back then and thought nothing of taking their clothes off," recalls Dater of shooting one of her favorite images now on view in "Only Human," a concise, carefully chosen exhibition encompassing a half-century of her stirring black & white photographs. Elegantly installed at the de Young Museum and spare enough in its contents to leave one wanting more, it's the last project to bear the imprint of former FAMSF photography curator Julian Cox, who left in October. His departure, though not nearly as high-profile as that of the institution's director Max Hollein, who'll be assuming the top job at New York's Metropolitan Museum in a few months, is a loss for lovers of the medium.

A native Californian, Dater grew up in Hollywood, wiling away hours in her father's darkened movie theater as a child. She later moved north, where her sensibility was shaped by San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene in the late 1960s, and even more crucially by the growing momentum of feminism, which has remained a constant theme. A feminist, she says, "is someone who's strong and independent and does what they want." Here, here.

As a mature, self-aware artist in command of her art-form, she has often explored gender fluidity and identity, sexual and otherwise. She spotted Laura Mae Dunlap in a North Beach restaurant dressed in the same spiffy, three-piece gangster suit and fedora she would sport in a striking 1973 portrait. "I just walked over to her table, not knowing whether she was a man or a woman, and told her I wanted to photograph her," Dater remembers.

Though primarily staged compositions, her pictures have no apparent artifice, no membrane between artist and sitter. Individuals like "Paolo Tenti, Rome, Italy" (1998), a quietly defiant, androgynous figure, seem to open their souls to her camera. The same holds true in a relatively recent suite of handsome, large-scale close-up studio portraits of older eminences, whose lived-in faces were shot against a simple black backdrop. In addition to Dater's gift for establishing rapport, the Deardorff 4x5 large-format camera she favors entails a slow process that allows time for subjects to unwind and shed inhibitions. Her Rome street portraits (1998), presumably shot on the run in 35mm, are less interesting.

The West Coast's Group f/64 photographers were also partial to the large, anachronistic cameras that helped them achieve the sharply defined photographs for which they're known. Their adherents Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and especially Imogen Cunningham, a rare woman in a male-dominated field, influenced Dater's work. Cunningham, who was 80 when the two women met, became a mentor to the 20-year-old Dater. "She was such an inspiration as a woman who had decided that photography was what she was going to do and did it, forging ahead no matter what," reflects Dater. "She liked me because I photographed people, when most everyone else was doing landscape. And of course, I gravitated to her work because she was a master portrait person." She was also feisty and game, qualities on display in a 1974 photograph in Yosemite in which the watchful, gray-maned Cunningham observes her quarry, a naked model (Twinka, painter Wayne Thiebaud's daughter), who resembles a woodland sprite peeking at the intruder in its midst. The picture playfully invokes Thomas Hart Benton's 1938 painting "Persephone," while critiquing the voyeuristic male gaze and giving it a feminist jolt.

Nudity became an all-purpose vehicle for Dater "to express ideas about sexuality, gender politics, freedom, vulnerability, strength and character." That seems to apply to a group of moving self-portraits she undertook in the wilderness as she approached her 40s. Naked and alone in a vast, desolate landscape, it's as if she's pitting herself against the universe, literally sizing up the big picture and wrestling with her place in it. For "Self-portrait with Sparkler, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming" (1982), she struck a bold stance on the edge of a geyser bordering a volcanic lake. In "Self-portrait Holding up Rock, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah" (1983), her tiny body is dwarfed by the gigantic boulder she's standing underneath and reaching up to steady, like Atlas holding up the Earth, or an ordinary woman symbolically resisting the oppression of societal convention. But "Self-portrait with Stone, Badlands, South Dakota" (1981), where she's curled in a fetal position on a rock-strewn, barren prairie as late-afternoon shadows fall across her body, is the starkest; one half-expects tumbleweed to roll by on a flat expanse whose emptiness extends as far as the eye can see.

There's a timeless, existential lonesomeness to these particular images; nature is constant, infinite, they seem to say; the rest of us, powerless in its wake, are just passing through.

Through Sept. 16. www.deyoung.famsf.org