Every Saturday morning, five-year-old Judy Dater eagerly went with her father to the movie theater he owned near Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. While he put away cartons of candy and popcorn and retreated to his office, she stepped into the blackest space imaginable to her, its rows of red velvet seats empty of people. Alone with her fear, she dared herself to walk from the doorway down to the stage, touch it and then run back up the aisle.
Sixteen years later — after Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, after Lawrence of Arabia and East of Eden, after movie-theater birthday parties and high school ticket-selling — Dater found herself again in the dark. But instead of films flickering on a screen, her black-and-white images slowly emerged onto paper floating in a tray of developer.
While her father’s movie theater set the stage for Dater’s interest in photography, it was her college darkroom that wrote the script for her life calling as an artist. “I loved the instantaneousness, the mystery of the photographic process. I loved how you could see something in real life and turn it into this black-and-white image,” Dater, now 71, tells me by phone from her home in Berkeley, California that she shares with her husband, curator Jack von Euw.
For over 50 years, Dater has been turning real life into photographs. “During this time, she never got swayed by or indulged in trends, but moved with her own vision,” says Mark Johnstone, a writer and curator in Hailey, Idaho, whom Dater photographed in 1983. “She’s one of the few successful women in the art world, especially photography, who never depended on ongoing academic support to fuel and expand her artistic exploration.” Her most recent work, Memoir, recalls those decades in a series of oversized, photo-album-collaged images from her life and art.
Dater has made portraits all over the world — in Japan, Dater arrived as a photographer in the late 60s, at the vital cultural intersection of photography and feminism. Argentina, France, Italy, Egypt and the U.S., mainly in California, where she’s lived most of her life. Those taken in Rome, in 1998, place serious faces against a simple black background to emphasize the subtlest emotional gestures. “From the beginning, Judy has focused on women and men in a way that is very direct and reveals the psychological character of her models,” says Donna Stein, associate director of The Wende Museum in Culver City, California, and a friend of Dater’s since they were 14. “Also, a lot of her work has a narrative, whether within one picture or a combination of images. When you see a portrait of a woman standing with her dress belted at the waist and open to reveal her breasts, and a mounted moose head behind her [“Libby” (1971)], she’s telling a story.”
Dater’s self-portraits range from her first student nudes in the mid-60s, to black-and-white nudes in the isolated Southwestern landscape in the early 80s, to color photos in which she is costumed and posed as female stereotypes — such as “Ms. Clingfree” (1982), loaded down with cleaning products.
Marilyn Symmes, curatorial director of the Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick, New Jersey, says, “Judy has done amazing portraiture, nudes and self-portraits every decade — moving closer to the sitter in order to scrutinize facial traits and nuances that quintessentially characterize the person, probing into their fundamental humanity. Over the years, she has created an impressive corpus of photographs of great psychological power and beauty. My frustration is with the lack of fuller attention on her work since her most famous image.”
She’s talking about Dater’s black-and-white photograph of 90- year-old Imogen Cunningham, dressed in black with a Rolleiflex at her waist, standing beside a redwood tree and appearing startled at the sight of a naked “forest nymph” looking back at her with impish curiosity. “Imogen and Twinka” (1974) — the first full-frontal nude to appear in LIFE magazine, in its 1976 issue celebrating women from 1776 to 1976 — assures Dater a permanent place in the history of photography.
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2012 issue.