by Robert Atkins
Jean-Luc Godard’s wonderful Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967) — released during the fruitful year in which he also brought us Weekend and La Chinoise– is among the French director’s best films. It came to mind as I contemplated Judy Dater, the subject of two exhibitions currently on view, Only Human, aretrospective at the de Young Museum, and Personas: a Survey of Works from 1965 to 2016 at Modernism through June 30.
Two or Three Thingsis a wry essay on capitalism, chronicling 24 hours in the life of Juliette, a bourgeois housewife, mother and prostitute, who ventures from her suburban Paris apartment bloc on a round of banal pursuits, including visits to the supermarket and to her clients for not-very-erotic trysts. In a voice over, Godard seductively whispers of his apprehension about the Vietnam War and “neo-capitalism,” as well as what he knows about Juliette: an everywoman
who he portrays as a victim of the “Gestapo of structures” (aka the fashion police) and of “immense building complexes,” by which he meant apartments with private bathrooms, something only about 30 percent of all French dwellings had at that time. The film is shot in up-to-date (gorgeous) color and in CinemaScope, a wide-screen format. Although Dater’s black-and-white portraiture connects her with earlier black-and-white filmmakers, it is Godard’s generously inclusive attitude that connects her to the filmmaker. He told Amy Taubin, “Everything …sports, politics, even groceries… should be put in a film.” Dater’s output is, similarly, an ode to inclusion: It proposes that everything in subjects’ faces and bodies awaits revelation, and that every individual is a potential subject.
Together, the two exhibitions present an introduction to Dater’s five-decade career. Only Human features around three dozen of Dater’s black-and-white portraits and nudes, plus an additional 15 installed in a grid that make up a single work. The Modernism show is, at 19 images, both smaller and broader, thanks to its inclusion of color, as well as black-and-white, pictures.
If there is one image for which Dater is famous, even to those who have never heard of her, it is Imogen Cunningham and Twinka, Yosemite 1974. It hangs in both shows and is a tonally nuanced depiction of the 91-year-old photographer who has chanced upon a comely, naked female standing beside a gigantic redwood. Cunningham seems taken aback at the sight of the smiling young blonde, whose coy glance, nudity and relative height, vis-à-vis that of the
shrunken elderly photographer, add a touch of surrealism to the scene. Is this an evocation of a dream? It is among the most narrative-inflected of Dater’s works and among the very few she relates to a specific artwork or moment of her past. The related work that indelibly impressed her as a teenager was Thomas Hart Benton’s life-sized canvas Rape of Persephone (1939). It portrays the artist in the guise of a farmer, spying on the queen of the underworld from behind the vegetation that embraces and identifies her. Dater notes that it sparked her interest in both the female nude and in voyeurism (even though the latter doesn’t seem to be a prominent aspect of the artist’s oeuvre.)
Imogen Cunningham and Twinka, Yosemite, 1974 also asserts, in retrospect, a claim for Dater’s place in the history of Bay Area art: Twinka is Wayne Thiebaud’s daughter. She’s seen in the de Young exhibition in an earlier work, Twinka Thiebaud, Actor, Model, Writer, California, 1970. In this, she’s tightly coiled, clothed in revealing garb, and gazing intensely with clutched hands. She appears again, unidentified, in a later work, Woman in a Slip, 2014, with experience etched on her handsome, but no longer youthful face. Dater met Cunningham in a workshop at what later became Esalen in Big Sur when she was 20 and Cunningham was 80. The older
photographer became a friend and mentor, leading to Dater’s book, Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait, published three years after Cunningham’s death in 1976.
As a graduate student at San Francisco State, Dater met many of the titans of California photography, including Brett Weston and Ansel Adams. Meeting Adams was was “like going on a high school field trip to Carmel.” Her portrait of the photographer presents him with eyes shut and beatific smile, a contrast to the greater familiarity embodied in her portraits of other contemporary photographers such as Peter Bunnell and Patrick Nagatani, and photo-world movers and shakers Beaumont Newhall and John Szarkowski. Adams’s agent, unidentified as such in Bill Turnage, Carmel, California, 1977, is pictured with his arms outstretched across the front fender of his Rolls Royce. In both shows it hangs beneath Cherie, Aspen, Colorado, 1972, as was Dater’s installation preference. It portrays a nude, former blonde bombshell holding one of those old-fashioned, horizontal-format photos of an entire army battalion or battle ship crew, a nod, perhaps, to sexual prowess and — as with Turnage’s portrait —excess.
Dater and Cunningham’s affinity no doubt derived, at least in part, from a shared interest in portraiture. How gendered is the portrait? (By this I mean to differentiate the portrait form or genre from considerations of the photographic gaze, the potentially different treatment of subjects by male and female photographers.) Fifty years ago, photographic portraiture lacked the pedigree of landscape photography. Nineteenth century photographers such as Carleton Watkins, to name but one, established the genre by coupling the scientific and documentary character of surveying expeditions with the divinity embodied in Hudson River School-style of landscape painting. The heavy equipment and remote locales necessarily made this a male province, a tradition within which Adams, Weston and other 20thcentury photographers took their places.
Photo portraiture, too, is nearly as old as the medium. But it existed primarily in inexpensive, commercially produced formats such as the ubiquitous carte-de-visite. They were small in size and cheaply produced for private consumption; wealthy sitters had their portraits painted rather than photographed. Cunningham found a space that tended to be inhabited — albeit not exclusively — by women. Her adventurous nude photographs of her artist husband, Roi Partridge, inspired Dater to propose such a project to her first husband, the photographer Jack Wellpott, who rejected the idea.
Neither show unfolds chronologically. Dater’s work is marked more by change than by linear development, moving between color and black-and-white pictures, and between portrait subjects who are variously strangers, intimates or herself. Photo-portraiture is often discussed in terms of the psychological relationship between portrait and sitter. The emotionally high-pitched work of a photographer like Richard Avedon, for instance, is often (aptly) regarded as a record of a contest of wills between photographer and subject, albeit an unequal one in
Avedon’s case. I am not sure, however, if this interpretive approach fits Dater. If it did, why are her most compelling works her self-portraits?
She began making self-portraits as soon as she began taking photographs in 1963. But the picture that she regarded as her first successful work was not a self-portrait. Rather, it was a photo of a close friend, Anna, Grass Valley, California, 1964, hanging now in the de Young. Anna’s androgyny is conveyed by her monk-like clothes and glasses, while the picture’s richly nuanced tones, blur the boundaries between subject and background, yielding an intriguingly opaque picture. Dater realized its efficacy only after hours of looking, the conclusion of an unconscious process far removed from any intent to impose pre-determined meaning on it.
Her earliest exhibited self-portraits — on view in both shows — are black-and-white pictures dating from the early 1980s. My Hands, Death Valley, California 1980 is vertically bisected by a plate of glass Dater holds parallel to the picture plate, enabling views of the desert beyond. One of a series of self-portraits shot two years later in Badlands, South Dakota, Self Portrait with Stone, 1981, depicts the naked artist in the rocky landscape, as a tiny figure in the distance, dramatically curled, like a snail seen from behind. These and other stunning pictures, like Self-Portrait with Sparkler, 1982 and Self-Portrait with Petroglyph, 1981, proclaim Dater’s close identification and association with nature.
They also evoke contemporary land art and earthworks of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as landscape images, including the early works of Richard Misrach. Other self-portraits created in color in 1982 (all at Modernism), present Dater confronting a mid-life crisis in wacky outfits that transform her into Ms.Clingfree, homemaker extraordinaire, a caged bird (Scream) and a louche blonde gourmand, engaged in lavish consumption (Eating).These, too, suggest other art forms — contemporary performance art in its pop-culture inflected phase and the costumed extravaganzas of Cindy Sherman. Other works of the 1980s, many of them multi-print configurations that sometimes include black-and-white self-portraits, seem to be dreamy narratives awaiting conclusion and resolution. (None are exhibited in either of the current shows.) But it is these self-portraits that have repeatedly offered Dater the opportunity to experiment or improvise, proving that she is her own best subject.
Every era has its unresolved issues with photography. No other medium can be employed in so many non-art-related ways. The modernist era—which coincides with much of the history of photography—prominently displayed its deep ambivalence. Up until the 1960s and 1970s,
curators asked if photography was art or some technological development inimical to it.
Dater reached artistic maturity just as photographers and conceptual artists definitively undermined the foundations on which their disciplines stood. Many photographers — weary of the quest for the iconic image, the “decisive moment” fetishized by Cartier-Bresson, interrogated the nature of photographic truth. A great example is Evidence (1977), a compilation of unlabeled government, corporate and scientific photos amassed and exhibited – without any explanatory information — by local photographers Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Each presented viewers with an impenetrable conundrum. En masse, they asked, Evidence of what? Meanwhile, conceptual artists like Christo and Jeanne-Claude embraced the possibility of conflating the photographic or mixed-media document with the work itself, their epochal Running Fence(1976) being a prime case in point.
Such practices suggested that artists had outwitted the art industry as agents of art-world change, that parity had been achieved between the canvas and the photograph. But like so many transformations of the era, its effects, while influential, were impermanent. Regardless of the high prices commanded by contemporary photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Sally Mann, their works are still discussed, auctioned, exhibited and evaluated in photographic terms. (On the other hand there are younger photo-artists like Cindy Sherman who never operated within the photo-world, typically due to their art school backgrounds and mass media concerns, but let’s consider them exceptions that prove the rule.)
When asked, Dater (not surprisingly) replies that she considers herself an artist rather than a photographer. Does her response matter in the 21stcentury? Put another way, what’s at stake in such considerations? Without raising the specter of phenomenology, I believe that it does matter. The ways the world is categorized, conceptualized and constructed affects everything we experience. At its most basic, such categorizations deprive Dater and her viewers of the chance to experience exhibitions that investigate the nature of portraiture without regard to the mediums of production. In shows of the future that pursue this aim, Dater’s pictures, I predict, will hang alongside those of Robert Arneson, Marlene Dumas, Lucian Freud, Peter Hujar and Alice Neel.
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About the author:
Robert Atkins is presently at work on a volume of his collected writings, The Eternal Frame: Sex and Politics in Recent American Art, and is co-directing with Betti-Sue Hertz, On Susan Sontag: Media, Modernity & Morality, a city-wide project slated for fall 2019 sponsored by the San Francisco Art Institute.