San Francisco

Judy Dater

Grapestake Gallery

Judy Dater’s recognition in the early 1970s came from her portraits of women. These pictures were collaborative fantasies, in which subject and photographer created tableaus representing fragments of female experience. Photographing women involved self-exploration for Dater, and the strength of these works rests in the manifestation of this involvement. Pictures of men—exhibited for the first time as a group—display inconsistency. From a visual standpoint they are dynamic: larger than her previous work (16 by 20 inches rather than 11 by 14 inches), using more direct light and graphic composition. But the intent behind them remains unclarified.

The subjects, many of them recognized personalities from the photographic field, are not so much depicted as cast into character. John Szarkowski, posing with eyes closed, his black suitcoat merging with the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art, becomes an adjunct to the building façade—her perception of establishment power. Dater acknowledges Minor White’s visionary stance by juxtaposing him with a circular window opening onto an ersatz 19th-century garden vista. And Peter Bunnell, modeling in tuxedo and suspenders with cigar in hand, emerges as a leftover Tennessee Williams character. There are small amusements in these portraits, generated by our awareness of these men’s positions. But at the same time the pictures, instead of revealing the subject’s character, or even a trace of interaction between photographer and sitter, appear to settle for facile surface description and comic posturing.

In Dater’s portraits of women, anonymity is a major strength. Ordinary women are transformed into extraordinary archetypes or icons. Similarly, the unknown male portraits imply this same kind of magnified representation. In a picture of three pool players in front of a mural of naked ladies, or a tree surgeon resting against a trunk, particular aspects of maleness are conveyed through expression, juxtaposition and detail. These pictures begin to exhibit the sociological archetyping present in August Sander’s photographs. With certain men Dater attempts coy sexual tableaus. Marc, a slender youth clothed only in a tee shirt, suggestively floats on a gray field. And Nehemiah, an exotic black man, lies in resplendent nakedness on a divan surrounded by a fringed coverlet and flowered wallpaper. While both images are the product of a constructed decadence, they are redeemed by an awareness that model and photographer share equally in this complicity.

Dater’s technical contrivances are questionable. Several of the portraits are deliberately (and disconcertingly) out of focus, either selectively or, as in the case of Ansel Adams, in their entirety. For unclear reasons, Dater has photographed some men with their eyes closed. In the Szarkowski portrait the composition itself is sufficiently strong to offset this device. But in most of the pictures it becomes a distraction, increasing distance between viewer and subject.

There is skillful and eclectic use of environment and light that has its antecedents in the photographs of Imogen Cunningham. But while Cunningham was able to charm or at least catch her subjects off guard by exploiting her own eccentricities, Dater seems distanced and withdrawn. Her success with women was due both to collaboration and expertise in expressing her own feelings through the subject. Her male portraits, however, only sporadically display comprehensible intentions. Certain of the individual male images are powerful. But they make no coherent statement as a group and seem to lack any specific direction.

Hal Fischer