“Judy Dater: Only Human,” opening this month at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, is the first major retrospective of the photographer’s work in almost 20 years. It may seem surprising it’s taken so long, but perhaps there has been no better time to celebrate her career. Dater’s genre-blurring photography has consistently challenged gender roles and stereotypes, and it seems particularly relevant today.
Born in Hollywood, where her father owned a movie theater, Dater has said she grew up admiring the movie posters and publicity photos of starlets her dad posted with each new movie. In the early 1960s, she moved to San Francisco, got her BA and MA at San Francisco State University and was mentored by many of the photographers in Group f.64, including Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. The show at the de Young displays some of the portraits she made of the group’s members, including what may be her most famous photo, “Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite,” which shows white-haired Cunningham encountering a nude model beside a tree.
Dater moved to San Francisco to find the Beat poets. They had left by the time she arrived, but another cultural movement was blossoming. She photographed hippies in Haight-Ashbury and then, as the women’s movement gained strength, she began making portraits of women, which helped her achieve notoriety. She also made nude studies of men that showed their emotion and vulnerability. Though she landed a Guggenheim fellowship to pursue the project, no one wanted to publish the images.
In the 1980s, while Dater was living in Santa Fe, she began traveling to the desert and to numerous national parks to make self-portraits. These images appear to have been equally influenced by feminist art that celebrated female strength and by the abstract landscapes her Group f.64 mentors had created. In a reflection on her decades of work, Dater notes, “The nude body—women, men, and myself—became an important vehicle for me to express ideas about sexuality, gender politics, freedom, vulnerability, strength and character.”
Curated by Janna Keegan, curatorial assistant at the de Young, with contributions from Julian Cox, former chief curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, “Judy Dater: Only Human” spans 50 years of picture making, and shows how Dater continues to explore the themes and issues that have always inspired her work.
—Holly Stuart Hughes
“Judy Dater: Only Human”
de Young Museum
San Francisco, CA