Living most of her life in California, Judy Dater (b. 1941) grew up in Hollywood with the influence of cinema amplified by the hours she spent in her father’s movie theater. This early exposure to the realm of the visual led her to study art at the University of California, Los Angeles and later San Francisco State University (SFSU), where she earned her degrees (BA 1963, MA 1966). At SFSU, Dater committed more seriously to photography and her early talent was encouraged by several prominent members from the West Coast’s Group f.64 and its followers, including Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams.
Though the theme of feminism remains present in Dater’s work through the decades, her compositions increase in narrative depth and implication over time. Her self-portraits incorporating the landscape of the Southwest use geographic features as subtle allusions that reveal the weight of social constructs.
Spanning five decades of the artist’s work, Judy Dater: Only Human provides a survey of Dater’s work, celebrating her achievement as a pioneering figure in 1970s feminist art and her subsequent creative evolution. The exhibition is on display at the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University through December 8. For more information visit https://cfa.lmu.edu/labandgallery/exhibitions/.
Paula: When I went to the Laband Gallery to see your exhibition, I asked the young gallery attendant what she thought of your work. She said, "Oh, I love it, it's wonderful. Some of these pictures were made a long time ago, but in our current environment, they seem so relevant to me." I wonder how you feel about that. Do you think we're still dealing with the same themes and issues that we were dealing with years ago?
Judy: I do. It was a different moment in terms of the women's movement at that time, the late '60s and early '70s. But I think that a lot of the themes that I was touching on then still are relevant today. There were things I was doing back then, like dealing with androgyny, which now one could certainly read as the LGBTQ/transgender movement. The kids love it today. And I don't think that we as women have attained all of what we would have liked to have attained 50 years ago. Today we're still fighting the same damn battles in a lot of places.
You could look at all those photographs again today and place them in what's going on. I feel like that's why I got a really good reception from the students there and with the young people when I had the show up at the de Young. They totally could relate to it. They could relate to the fact that I'm dealing with racial issues. I have photographed all different races of people since I first started doing portraits and nudes: Asians, African- Americans, Caucasians, and so on. I just treated everyone the same. Looking at what we all have in common rather then how we differ. There's a lot of that in the show, and it’s relevant today. A number of people have commented that they seem fresh today in regard to what's going on in our culture.
Paula: Why the focus on portraits?
Judy: Because I'm interested in people. I started out in photography in the early '60s, and the people that were teaching photography at San Francisco State when I was there were all focusing on the landscape. They were very much influenced by the Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock aesthetic. Of course they all did some pictures of people, but you think of them mostly as landscape photographers. Jack Welpott and Don Worth were both serious landscape photographers. When we would go on field trips together as a class, we would go to the beach or we'd go to Muir Woods, places where it was landscape-y. As a student, I was trying to do landscape, and I did do some, but I found that I always wanted to ask one of my fellow students to go get in the picture, just to add the human element. That was just some instinctive thing that I did right in the beginning.
After a while I thought, "I think what I'm really interested in is the person more than the landscape. I just want to photograph these people in their homes where they live, in their own environment." I just started doing it. That was what drew me. I think it had a lot to do with finally getting away from home, living on my own in San Francisco, and trying to find my way, figure out who I was. It wasn't exactly like doing a self-portrait, but looking at women that were like myself was a way of trying to inform myself about life and who I was. What's going on here and how do I fit in? All those questions you ask yourself when you're in your early twenties. Now it’s all about identity. That’s how the students and their teachers refer to what I was doing back in the sixties.
Paula: That's really interesting. What can you learn about a person through their portrait?
Judy: What do I learn? Or what do you learn?
Paula: Perhaps it's different things. You by doing them and then the viewer by seeing them. What do you think you learn as the photographer?
Judy: You pick up all kinds of things. I'm having a conversation with them, and looking at them intently. I’m not so much trying to tell you who these people are, but I'm looking at them as archetypes. I want the viewer to get a feeling from the photograph that this person is ... I don't know, interesting, mysterious, intelligent, beautiful, sexy, whatever… and for the viewer to relate to them in some way, to see some of themselves in these people. There are things going on in the photographs that make up a narrative or a story. There is no right or wrong to it. I might have an idea, but I'm more interested in what the viewer would see or take away from it, rather than me telling them what they're supposed to think about it. It’s giving them a bunch of clues to have their own fantasy about what this person is about.
Paula: Twinka appears in the exhibition a number of times as a model. Can you say something about her and your relationship with her?
Judy: I just thought she was a wonderful model. I mean, she was incredibly beautiful and striking and very at ease. She was good to photograph, and I photographed her several times in the first five or six years.
Then there’s the Imogen and Twinka photograph. I got her hired to work as a model at the Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite where that photograph was taken. I did a lot of other photographs of her at that particular workshop, but that's the one. I think that was the last time I photographed her until a few years ago. We had stayed in touch a little bit. She's been trying off and on to get photographs of her together to do a book. She’s modeled for a lot of other people, mainly because of the Imogen and Twinka picture. Her father is Wayne Thiebaud, and he painted her when she was a young girl. Because she wants to do a book about herself as a model someone suggested that she should have some pictures of herself today. She started asking various photographers who were still around if they would re-photograph her, and she asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, "Oh, God, yeah, absolutely." I hadn't seen her for a really long time.
That’s how that 2016 picture came about. I took a bunch of pictures of her in my studio, and that was the one that I liked so I put it in the show. I didn't want to call it Twinka Thiebaud. I wanted the photograph to stand on its own without people feeling like they had to make the comparison with other portraits of her. If you can figure it out, then that's great, I'm really happy, but I wanted it to be a little bit mysterious, so that people could look at the picture and just look at it without all that baggage.
Paula: I didn't realize it was her until I saw her name when looking at the images online. You included this image in the exhibition – did you want to make age part of the conversation as well?
Judy: Oh, absolutely. It is. The last 10 or 12 pictures in the book are all of older people. It's totally about aging. The first picture in the book is the first picture that I took that I liked when I was in my early twenties, and it ends up with older people. The whole idea of aging per se and the issues that women have in regard to aging is definitely something that I'm interested in and concerned with.
Paula: It’s a beautiful portrait, and an interesting juxtaposition of portraits of the same subject as a younger and older woman.
Your Imogen and Twinka image is iconic. It's everywhere. It's got everything. It's beautiful. It's clever. It's funny. It's charming. What does this bring up for you when you look at it again and again and again after all these years? Has your experience of this picture changed over time?
Judy: At this stage of my career I'm basically numb to it. I'm sick of it. I've told the story of it so many times. I personally don't care about it anymore, except for the fact that it's probably financed my career, so I'm glad that I took it. I know it's a good portrait. I know it's a good picture, and it's an important picture, or it wouldn't be so well-known and loved and iconic. But for me personally, if I never saw it again I wouldn't care. I'm so over it. It was a really, really long time ago, and it's been both a blessing and a curse.
Paula: I hear that. It's kind of like when you go see the Rolling Stones in concert, and you want them to play the hits, but they want to be able to do new things.
Judy: Exactly. I wasn't going to put it in the book, but the publishers wouldn’t let me exclude it. Then I wasn’t going to put it in the show. In the end I realized that it would be like going to a concert and wanting somebody to sing your favorite song, and then they don't sing it. Then you're disappointed. It's not that you don't like the other music. It's just you want to hear it because it makes you feel good.
Paula: This is a campus with young students, and there may be people who don't know this story, who haven't seen it. It's part of the introduction of your story to new audiences all the time, I imagine.
Judy: Right. It's okay. It's a good thing that I took that photograph. But it's not the only photograph I ever took.
Paula: In this exhibition, self-portraits don't enter the picture until somewhat later in your career. Is that accurate, or is that just the way this show came together? Did you do self-portraits all along?
Judy: I did some. It was probably one of the very first things I did in photography. I did some self-portraits, and then I moved on to photographing other people because it was more interesting to me, and I had more control over what I was doing. You can't look through the camera at the same time that you're doing a self-portrait.
I've done it at different times in my life. I started doing the ones that are in the show right before I was going to turn 40, and that seemed like a very big time in my life to take stock and look at myself and figure some things out. I had moved away for a few years to Santa Fe, and I was living out there in the desert away from my friends and my normal life. That's when I started working on that work.
Paula: Did it teach you something? You say you've gone in and out of it over time. What compels you to do them?
Judy: Well, at that time there were a couple of things. One was that I had left the Bay Area and was living in a different place. I wasn't really interested in taking pictures of the New Mexico landscape. I was too new to the place to even begin to think that I could get involved in the culture there. It just felt presumptuous. What I had at the time was facing 40 and the relationship with myself in a strange place. I think I needed to use myself and look at myself within the landscape to try to help ground myself at that point. It was like being on the moon. I felt like I was on another planet, and I think that the photographs sometimes have that quality to them.
There was also a sense of testing myself physically and emotionally and a sense of daring. I did things that I don't think I would have asked a model to do. It was a little forbidding. It was like, "How tough am I? How strong am I? How brave am I?" to do some of these things that I was doing out there. The pictures were important to me on that level.
One of the pictures the de Young women seemed to absolutely adore is the large self-portrait of me with the sparkler. That one has become really popular all of a sudden, and I think it's because it shows a lot of physical strength. Women don't have to be passive anymore. They can be strong. It's also kind of flaunting your sexuality. I think of it as a tough and brave and also a playful commentary on womanhood. I think the other ones have some of that same quality too, of this strength and physicality in the landscape. I proved to myself I could do it.
Paula: You're quite bold.
Judy: That was what I wanted them to be. And I was living in a place where I was pretty isolated. It gave me permission to do stuff I might not have done if I was still living in my urban situation. I felt a little invisible out there. I do think that the whole age thing was a big part of it. I did a memoir project when I was just turning 70, and that was another big turning point. I'd been in and out of various marriages and relationships, and I had all this stuff that I found humorous. At that point in my life I could look back on it and play with it and laugh at it, even though some of the stuff is kind of sad. For the most part, I was being playful with my past history, and I was with somebody who wasn't threatened by it. My present husband wouldn't stand in the way of my doing or saying anything I needed to say in my art, whereas the one before that, I could never have done it with him. After I had done that project I felt like I had really looked at that stuff and could move on.
I did one other self-portrait this year. The de Young Museum asked me to do a self-portrait to relate to any art object that was in their collection that I wanted to say something about. It’s something they ask different artists to do for their magazine. Right away I knew I wanted to do something with their James Turrell Sky Room. I wanted to do a nude in there. Nothing else in the museum got me the way that Sky Room got me. I had to do it on a Monday when the museum was closed because of the visitors. The curator had to be in there with me to make sure that nobody came in, and somebody was manning the security camera. I made a picture I really, really, really liked, and everybody liked it. They asked me to write something about it, and they did the layout for the magazine, and then somebody decided that maybe they should check with the James Turrell Foundation and see if it was okay because somebody remembered that this thing is copyrighted. So, at the last second, they found out that they couldn't get permission for them to do it. We ended up using another photo I had taken of myself nude at the Legion of Honor back in 1965 when I was still a student. It was a miracle I remembered having taken it and they all liked that one too so it went into the magazine instead of the other one.
Paula: So you did this whole project, and it's not seen the light of day.
Judy: I showed the photograph in a slide lecture the other day, but I haven't used it. I think I'm going to use it at some point though. I mean, you can't tell where the hell the picture is taken.
Paula: Now that you’ve done a few exhibitions and the book, has it evoked a lot of memories? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment? What is it like to do that work of looking back?
Judy: It was good. Yeah, there was a sense of accomplishment, and there's a sense of continuity. It does seem like there's a whole new generation out there that's ready to look at the work, which I was really happy about. A lot of people have said that they felt like the work was timeless, and it doesn't look dated. I feel like it's all of a piece and touches on a lot of different themes that I've done and circled back to. It feels complete to me as a body of work. Not that I’m done, I’m still working. But it was nice to get a lot of the stuff up and out of mothballs and on the wall, and mixed in with the newer work. There’s a certain feeling that runs through it, a certain kind of humanity that I think is there and something I care about, in terms of the message that I'm trying to convey. That’s why I called it Only Human. It was very satisfying.
Paula: Is there anything that you want people to know that we haven't talked about?
Judy: Just that I'm not dead yet, and I'm still working. I'm not done.