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New De Young retrospective celebrates feminist photographer Judy Dater

Written by
Sarah Medina

Judy Dater has been creating art for more than 50 years in a surprisingly tidy studio in west Berkeley. There, buried among the relics of her long career, sits her San Francisco State University MFA portfolio (1966), which includes Lovers No. 1 (1965), the first photograph in the series that would help make her famous and a focal point in the De Young’s upcoming Dater retrospective, “Only Human.”

The show traces Dater’s career from her days in SF and her New Mexico sabbatical to her current works. In the 1960s and ’70s, Dater ambled around Haight-Ashbury with fellow shutterbugs Minor White, ex-husband Jack Welpott and Imogen Cunningham, who, as a pioneering feminist photographer would significantly influence Dater.

At a time when a photograph of  full-frontal nudity was considered obscene, Dater dared to take pictures of naked women. “Nudity allows people to strip away their self and reveal who they are,” notes Janna Keegan, curatorial assistant at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Indeed, Dater wasn’t afraid to use her own body to create heroic images, and the resulting self-portraits are haunting.

Above, in Self-Portrait with Stone (1981), we see Dater in the fetal position, naked, in the middle of the South Dakota Badlands. The rough landscape serves as a metaphor for the social constructs that hold women back.  Perhaps her most famous work, Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite (1974) depicts an elderly Cunningham encountering a nude Twinka Thiebaud behind a tree in Yosemite National Park. The image is lauded for replacing art’s traditional male gaze with two women, young and old, viewing each other as equals.


My Hands (1980)
Photograph: Judy Dater, courtesy the De Young

In her most recent work, Dater strips away everything—even the background— to produce raw, psychological photos of strangers. “Her photographs are concerned with acknowledgement, with personal identity and belonging, with loneliness and solidarity,” says Julian Cox, a former curator at the museum. “The best of them possess a beauty, intelligence and complexity that elevates them above the merely interesting to the often profound.”   

Presented in chronological order, the show allows viewers to consider Dater’s evolution as an artist from black-and-white to color photography and from blatant critiques of a male-driven society to nuanced portraits of Bay Area residents.

“Only Human” is at the De Young April 7–September 16; free–$15.

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