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Judy Dater: Only Human

      Interviewing Judy Dater over the phone is a bit unnerving. She is on vacation at The Sea Ranch on the Northern California Coast when we

Dater Imogen+and+Twinka+at+Yosemite+1974LG.+Co+Judy+Dater+300+dpi

Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, 1973

speak, and I can’t help thinking of her without attaching all those other important West Coast photographers’ names to my anxiety of the interview – Weston, Adams, Bernhard and Cunningham. Dater represents a time-honored tradition in photography but has managed to cultivate a place of her own with photographs that command respect for her subjects in a contemporary world of imagery that many times borders on shock and exploitation. Her work is aesthetically pleasing with underpinnings of feminism and the politics of being human combined with reverence for each person that stands in front of her large format camera. I had the honor of taking a workshop with Dater in the mid 1990’s in San Francisco when I was a young and impressionable photographer, and I was equally uneasy about producing photographs for her to critique. At the beginning of our interview, I feel that same awe-inspiring nervousness in the pit of my stomach until I realize Judy Dater is human too.

      Dater’s retrospective Only Human at San Francisco’s de Young Museum (April 7 to September 16, 2018) is a culmination of more than fifty years of profound portraits of people – ordinary people and her evocative self-portraits. When looking through the pages of Dater’s companion book for the retrospective, also entitled Only Human, one notices a consistency exists in her process throughout the years that alludes to her careful, detailed eye and an affinity for subjects with what she calls, “soul.”

Dater SP with Stone

Self Portrait with Stone, 1981

    “Soul is something I identify with immediately on meeting someone; it’s something in their demeanor, depth, and vulnerability. I’m not interested in photographing surface beauty or quirkiness, I look for an interior strength, it’s intuitive for me,” claims Dater. She tells me her subjects are mostly strangers she’s met at social events or through friends. They arrive at her studio and chat with the artist about ten minutes before Dater commits to taking “warm up” photos. She says, “It takes about twenty minutes to a half hour to get into it, for the subject to feel unselfconscious.” She sets ground rules for each shoot by committing sixteen pieces of film to the sitting. She says, “It’s like an arc, there is a progression and then it tapers off. There’s a rhythm to the process.”

     “No one would have the same relationship with a subject – it’s hard to say what it is – the connection of photographer and subject,” Dater states when asked about the importance of how the sitters react to her. “Each photographer would draw out different things, observe distinct qualities. It took me a while to figure out how it works – I have to pay attention and go with the first thought, it’s usually the right one, or it suggests the next step.”

      One of the most striking things about Dater’s work is the timelessness of the imagery in both her self-portraits and portraiture. She tells me, “Clothing marks a moment, the self-portraits had to be nude – the body is a timeless symbol.” Her portraits also stand the test of time – the relationship of aesthetic, gesture and expression allows Dater’s pictures from the 60’s and 70’s to hang beside her modern-day images with a coherence that most fine art photographers would envy.

Dater Gun Meditation 1 2015

Gun Meditation #1, 2015

    In a new project, Dater is taking on a potentially controversial subject – people and guns. She’s photographing portraits of gun owners in her Bay Area studio. While she isn’t proposing a conversation about gun control, she is fascinated by the stories and people that own guns, especially those that don’t fit the stereotype of gun owners - like liberal-minded people in her community. In the way that only Dater can do, the portraits don’t judge or demonize, even though she is a believer in gun control. She describes her interactions with the gun owners surprisingly, “The subject comes to the studio with the gun and then I usually find myself in a gun safety lecture from them.  I’ve found that many people have fantasies about who they are with a gun – a James Bond character, an avatar, a cowboy. The portrait gives them the opportunity to play out the fantasy. While the gun symbolizes a level of power, I can’t stereotype these people, most are highly educated and from this liberal area. I think this project may break stereotypes, but I realize it may open up space for some potential criticism.”

    Dater’s advice to young fine art photographers sounds like this - “Believe in yourself, you can’t be wishy-washy or insecure. Believe in what you are doing and don’t talk yourself out of it. Don’t follow a trend, stay true to your thoughts and visions. Also, be part of a community and don’t isolate yourself, be out there and be part of the world.” It’s clearly a mantra that has served the artist well in her lengthy career.

    When we conclude our interview, I refer back to Dater’s book Only Human before writing this post. What strikes me after speaking with her and looking back at the images is her ability to diligently create meaningful portraits spanning decades when contemporary art can eschew tradition and aesthetic. I feel inspired by her determination to listen to her intuition in a world so wholly filled with opinions and criticisms on visual artists. I now understand how Dater’s images ultimately explore the diversity of the human interior with compassion and without judgment, and how this speaks volumes about the artist’s humanity. Judy Dater may have sprung from a West Coast photographic tradition with the likes of those other big names, but she stands apart with a clarity of vision and compassion for humanity in a way that is entirely her own.

Judy Dater's website