Judy Dater and the Photographic Portrait
By Gloria Williams Sander
Friday, November 6, 2020
Photographer Judy Dater (b. 1941) has long attracted critical and popular acclaim for her evocative pictures of women and men, clothed and nude. Informed by her feminist perspective, her insightful and compelling photographs introduced new models for portraiture, especially as they concerned presentations of women and the depiction of male subjects by a female artist.
Dater began her career in Northern California amid an art scene that was still under the strong influence of Group f/64, an iconic Bay Area photography movement. Its members, including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham—one of Dater’s mentors—practiced a direct, unmannered approach to black-and-white photography that emphasized sharp focus and careful framing. Like them, Dater worked, and continues to work, within this tradition of straight photography—that is, she portrays the reality of the world without manipulating the photograph after it has been produced. To this she adds her keen ability to balance the facts recorded by the camera with a sensitivity to the humanity of her subjects, bringing an astute psychological focus to her portraits.
Two early prints in the Norton Simon’s collection introduce us to Dater’s distinctive interaction with her subjects and to her approach to organizing a composition. A historic hotel near Tomales Bay, California, beloved for its laid-back atmosphere, provided the setting for a serendipitous meeting with the subjects of Three Women, 1966. “I was intrigued by them as a trio, three striking women, on their own, out in the middle of nowhere,” Dater recalled.
Seated closely together by the artist, they are framed so closely that their heads touch or are just cropped at the top of the frame. Since they are dressed in dark clothing and set against a dark sofa, their expressive faces (curious, observant, wary) and their body language become the focus. Using only the natural light that was available, Dater employed a large-format 8 x 10 camera for its descriptive capacity, and for the density of detail it captured, from the stray strands of hair to the texture of the carpet.
In place of the traditional formality of a studio portrait, in which women are fashionably clothed, decorously posed and passively smiling, these women lean in, actively returning the gaze of the photographer as she peered back through the lens. Dater neither idealized nor normalized these women. The self-awareness and confidence of the sitters is palpable and correlates to the rising feminist movement of the period to which her work is linked.
In Anna, Pregnant, 1968, Dater continued, as she noted, to “rely on the face itself to tell the story. . . . The narrative is implied through the look in the eye, the tilt of the head, the contact one feels when confronting these images. My portraits usually depict subjects in a serious or contemplative frame of mind.”
Here the subject is presented as lost in thought. An oval contour that extends from her head to the hands in her lap acts as a frame within the frame. Anna’s fingers are entwined, save for the thumb and index finger of her left hand, which form an O. For viewers accustomed to the nonverbal communication inherent in gesture, and to the strong connection between the hands and the brain, the image invites us to scrutinize how her hands may also tell a story.
The Museum’s photography collection also holds more recent prints by the artist. Jorge Livia, 1996, illustrates the performative element that the photographer-as-auteur coaxed from her subject. A photographer himself, Livia met Dater when she was teaching in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Two distinguishing features of Dater’s photography—her preference for dark tonalities and the close framing of her subjects—are evident here but infused with a new vigor. Indeed, a strong note of drama characterizes this image as Livia—poised, virile and confident—reveals himself as he parts the curtain with his right hand. With his other hand, he holds his hat to his chest, a well-known sign of respect or admiration. A dynamic give-and-take is present here, combining Livia’s conventions for self-presentation with Dater’s precise orchestration in order to create a stately composition.
Throughout her career, Dater has created thematic photo journals inspired by memory or, in the present moment, bounded by the circumstances of the pandemic. In 1998, as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, Dater realized an ambitious goal: a journal in which her images of men and women resonated with the poetry and myth she has long admired in Italian painting and cinema. She photographed Romans she encountered on the street and invited others for a shoot in her studio.
Maria Rosario Domenici, 1998, draws on portrait customs of the past—the half-bust, profile pose that recalls icons of the Madonna and Renaissance portraits of women—and of the present—recording the unmediated details of Domenici’s visage. This classicizing composition captures the subject’s natural beauty and grace. A hint of nostalgia brings to mind a fabled portrait by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, one of Dater’s heroes in the pantheon of photography. In the 1865 work, Cameron depicts a young girl as Sappho, the ancient Greek poetess.
About her subjects, Dater states, “I choose them instinctively for what I perceive to be their ability to express emotions, to be playful, sexy and humorous, to reveal what I identify as soul.” Indeed, the artist achieves an intimacy and mystery in her photographs through her ability to draw out transitory, often vulnerable moments in her subjects. Her images encourage a profoundly human psychology of looking and feeling that places Dater’s photographs in a class of their own.
Gloria Williams Sander is Curator at the Norton Simon Museum.