Capturing What’s Human

An elderly woman, with white hair, a heavy dress, wire spectacles and an old-fashioned camera appears to be wandering in an old-growth forest of sturdy trees. Opposite her stands the vaguely pagan figure of a wood nymph, slender and entirely, classically nude. Is it the Greek goddess Diana? The same woman seven decades younger? A metaphor for the feminine in Western art? A meditation on nature versus culture? She may be all of these, or nothing. We’re deep in the wood here in more ways than one.

It’s difficult to define any artist by a single piece: It’s the difference between a one-hit wonder and a major figure. Judy Dater is the latter, but her most famous image, “Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite” — pioneering photographer Imogen Cunningham with model Twinka Thibaud — has become iconic in part for its mystery and power of suggestion. Besides being visually striking, it’s also an inversion of the time-worn trope of a nude woman experiencing what art historians call “the male gaze.” The blending of old-fashioned beauty with a subtle version of aesthetic feminism was the first nude photograph to appear in Life magazine, as part of a 1976 issue about American women — and it has not gone away since.

Dater herself considers the piece “a blessing and a curse.” The photographer, an unassuming woman in her 70s who could be a distinguished Marin County chef, is proud of the piece, but says, “It’s made it hard for people to look at the rest of my work.”

Dater, who has been making and showing photographs for more than a half-century, is currently experiencing a revival of attention, with a well-reviewed retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, and a handsomely produced book, “Only Human,” published by the university’s Marymount Institute Press.

Dater almost left the photograph out of the book and considered keeping it out of an exhibit that opened in October at the university’s Laband Art Gallery. “It’s too distracting!” she says. “But then I realized: Don’t make everybody angry at you — just put it in the show!”

Dater grew up, as she said in a lecture at Murphy Hall on Oct. 5, “in the shadow of the Hollywood sign.” Her father owned a cinema on Western Avenue, and she began going to movies at age 4 or 5, in the mid-1940s. Tarzan movies, Westerns and, later, romantic films were her favorites. “They were all black and white — those enormous images in the dark. There’s no way they didn’t affect me,” whether the heroic figures, the close-ups, the theatricality or the narratives that drove it all.

“When I see a person or a face, I say, ‘Oh my God — look at that! It’s like falling in love. I’m not interested in any conventional standard of beauty.”

But what led her most directly to photography was not film but painting, which she began as a teenager. “My idea of being an artist was that I’d go to Paris, live in a garret and paint.” But during a few years at UCLA, she was told her artistic talent was limited. When she moved to San Francisco in 1963, she took a photography class and began shooting a range of images, including self-portraits. She knew she had found her medium. She never went back, though the influence of art history would become evident in her work. (“Imogen and Twinka,” for instance, was in part a response to Thomas Hart Benton’s “Persephone.”)

“I liked photography partly because I could express myself without using words,” she says, sitting in an office at LMU’s Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts wearing a blazer over a Wonder Woman T-shirt. “I was very shy.”

Her first important portraits were of friends and people she met in restaurants, parties, even the post office, including an early favorite, “Anna.” In San Francisco — which she remembers as “the center of the universe” back then — the Beat scene was easing into the hippie era taking shape around Haight-Ashbury.

Over the decades, she would often work in themes that lasted a few years — women, nude-self-portraits, Asian Americans, Romans and, most recently, gun owners. Her technique is not intrusive; she tries to bring out the depths of her subject.

But she defines her work by who she chooses to photograph. “When I see a person or a face, I say, ‘Oh my God — look at that! It’s like falling in love. I’m not interested in any conventional standard of beauty.” What she wants, she says, is character and soul.

Dater is associated with the women’s movement, which thrived during the first decade or two of her career. But her relationship to all movements is complicated — a tribute to her individualism as an artist. “So much of my work is political,” she says. “But I’m not a political photographer.”

This apparent paradox works itself out in numerous ways in her photography. Many of her early photos were of women; some were nudes. “I felt that I was photographing women in a way that had not been done,” she says. “I wasn’t looking at them as sexual objects but as sisters and friends.” In the ’70s, this became even more true. “The women were making eye contact, being their own person and not my fantasy of who they were — letting their fierceness or individuality come out.”

To de Vroom, Dater’s work is dedicated to the question “How do you get to the essence of the human being?”

She tried, in her photographs of men, to also go against the grain — to play with what she considered outdated but still rampant ideas of masculinity. (Her male nudes, she says, were originally so taboo they were impossible to exhibit or sell.)

One of Dater’s most fruitful phases was a turn connecting her to the Western landscape. When she was on the verge of turning 40, Dater and a friend began making trips into the “big, open spaces” of the California and New Mexico deserts. “There was something about them,” she says, “that represented possibility and the infinite and not knowing the future.” Many of her images from that period positioned her unclothed form in a vast arid space, as a way of both seeking her place in the wider world and asserting “feminine strength.” Among the first of these pieces — and perhaps Dater’s favorite of her own work — is “My Hands, Death Valley,” from 1980, which she describes as “a metaphor for pulling something away to see more clearly.”

What Karen Rapp, director of the Laband gallery, sees when she looks at Dater’s career is consistency. “It’s a commitment to the subject, the identity of the people in her work. And her preference for using a wide-format camera has never changed.” Rather than the fleeting spontaneity of the street photographer, “She sees the value of setting things up.” And while Dater has stayed true to her technique, her critique of gender, Rapp says, has stayed entirely relevant, decades later.

Dater’s strong reputation goes back decades, but she owes her reemergence in part to LMU. The process started with the Marymount Institute, which is rooted in the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, a congregation of Catholic women religious that has its roots in 19th century France. The Dater exhibit is partly a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the collaboration that began in 1968 between the then Marymount College, operated by the R.S.H.M. sisters, and the Jesuit Loyola University. Dedicated to intellectual excellence, social justice and the arts, the institute runs a press that has increased its output lately; it aims, as director Theresia de Vroom, director of the Marymount Institute, puts it, “to try to tell stories no one else will tell.” To her, Dater’s work is dedicated to the question “How do you get to the essence of the human being?”

de Vroom has loved “Imogen and Twinka” since high school, keeping a poster of the image on her wall all the way through graduate school. When she wrote a book, years later, about Shakespeare’s late plays, she began imagining how the photograph spoke to the Bard, and decided to write Dater for permission to reprint it. “I wrote a gushing three sentences,” de Vroom recalls. The two later met for lunch, and when de Vroom suggested a career-encompassing book, Dater offered an “Okey Doke,” and the process begun.

Then Dater brought a dummy copy of the project, with images made from her studio printer, to the director of De Young Museum. “I don’t think there would have been a show at the De Young without the book,” Dater says.

The process took years, but it resulted in strong reviews — The Online Photographer blog named “Only Human” the book of the year — substantial book sales, and the De Young show moving to LMU, where its opening attracted photography royalty from the Getty Center and Norton Simon Museum.

And Dater’s time with LMU students led this formerly shy only child to be dubbed, according to Rapp, “relatable.” Dater thinks it must have been something she learned along the way. “My whole life has been spent trying to relate to people,” she says, noting that persuasion and connection are important parts of her art. “I guess I’ve finally developed a way to talk to people. I don’t just reserve it for the studio.”

Scott Timberg, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, is the author of “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.” He was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for six years, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Los Angeles Magazine and elsewhere. Among his feature articles for LMU Magazine are pieces on painter John August Swanson and the DACA program. Follow Timberg on Twitter @TheMisreadCity.


“Judy Dater: Only Human,” which opened on Oct. 6, 2018, at LMU’s Laband Art Gallery, will be up through Dec. 8. The exhibition, which was organized by San Francisco’s de Young Museum, includes 50 photographic works by Dater, who began her work as a pioneering feminist photographer in the 1970s. The exhibit is part of the 2018–19 Bellarmine Forum, the theme of which is “Collaboration and Creativity: Faith, Culture, and the Arts.”

Photo credit: Judy Dater, “Maxine Hong Kingston, Berkeley, California,” 2015. Archival pigment print, print © Judy Dater. Image Courtesy of the Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California.

This article was posted on Oct. 25, 2018.