Judy Dater leads public tours of her life’s work at the de Young Museum all the time. Since April, avid fans have joined the outings, as have people less familiar with Dater’s photographs — but they all seem to know her best-known image: Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, a 1974 photo in which an elderly (and fully dressed) Imogen Cunningham surprises a naked woman who’s standing before a tree.
Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite is to Judy Dater what the 1959 album Kind of Blue was to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis: an icon. And each artist made other great work that fans don’t embrace as well. In his later years, jazz-goers implored Davis to play Kind of Blue in concert; he basically refused. While Dater isn’t nearly as obstinate about Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, her de Young retrospective, “Judy Dater: Only Human,” reminds her of how difficult it can be to distance yourself from a work that entered the culture in such an indelible way. Dater, who’s now 77, loves Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite — but it’s just one of thousands she’s taken in an award-winning career that spans 50 years.
“I have to talk about it — they won’t let me not talk about it,” Dater tells SF Weekly about her tours. “Even though the story is pretty much there on the [de Young’s] wall, they still want me to tell the story. So I do it.”
Among Dater’s newer photos are an ongoing series of people set against black backgrounds, which accentuate the subjects’ faces, their expressions, and anything else that stands out against the darkness. For a 2015 photo from the series, Dater had writer Maxine Hong Kingston hold her white hair aloft as if it were a canopy, leaving white ringlets that dangled down toward the vertical ends of a brightly patterned scarf. Because Kingston’s black clothing merges into the backdrop, she looks like a kind of eccentric elder as she gazes toward the viewer. Similar to Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite, though, Dater has orchestrated these black-backdropped photos, working with her subjects to bring out moments that are eye-catching and spontaneous. These black-and-white images from the past 20 years, which bookend Dater’s early photos in “Only Human,” are difficult to perfect because they’re so focused and leave so little room for error. They’re intensely personal to Dater.
“When I’m photographing somebody, I can’t have anyone else around,” says Dater, whose newest photo series — of Bay Area people with guns — didn’t make it into “Only Human.” “I don’t want them to bring anybody. And I don’t work with any assistants. It’s just this quick relationship that I establish with people. Because I am who I am — and how I talk to them, and what I ask them to do, and direct them, and cajole them — they’re reflecting something back to me that I’m giving to them. They’re bouncing off of me and I’m bouncing off of them, and then they’re bouncing off of me. Nobody else could take those pictures. It would be a whole different dynamic that’s happening. I think they’re giving me something that they wouldn’t give someone else.”
Dater, who lives in Berkeley, is very much in demand as a photographer — and as an educator and instructor, which puts her in the same kind of mentorship position that Cunningham was to her in the 1960s, when Dater was studying photography at San Francisco State and Cunningham was an international figure whose work was linked to that of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and the other Bay Area photographers who formed what they called Group f/64.
Besides being a mentor, friend, and important female role model, Cunningham was a key photographic subject: With her white hair, bundled-up clothing, and large Rolleiflex camera, Cunningham’s appearance in Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite gives the photo a jarring edge. The image is a critique of the male gaze, and a play on Thomas Hart Benton’s 1939 painting called Persephone, which had an elderly male farmer snaking around a tree to look lustily and longingly at a young, naked woman. Dater tells SF Weekly that she worked on a similar motif for six years, and that Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite was her “culmination.” For the image, Dater had the model Twinka Thiebaud — a daughter of painter Wayne Thiebaud — pose nude with Cunningham. Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite appeared in LIFE magazine in 1976, and has since reappeared in countless exhibitions and publications.
In an accompanying display of items from Dater’s life, the de Young features a photo of Dater walking down a city street with Cunningham and Dater’s then-partner. (French photographer Lucien Clergue took the photo.) Dater and Cunningham are beaming at each other — a moment from the early 1970s that’s entirely revealing of their bond. Cunningham died in 1976 at age 93.
“She was my hero,” Dater says. “We were grooving. What can I say?”
Dater’s list of honors includes a Guggenheim fellowship, grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Visiting Artist appointment at the American Academy in Rome. But she endured a period of about 25 years when she was getting little attention in art circles, she says. The de Young retrospective — Dater’s first in two decades — has renewed interest in her work from curators and fans alike. “Almost Human,” Dater says, arrived at the right time.
“The show has been a major validation — and it’s gotten people to pay attention to me and my work again,” says Dater, who spoke at the April opening on a panel that also featured Twinka Thiebaud and other models she’s worked with. “Art is fashion, in a way. People go in and out of fashion, and you can’t be hot for 50 years. The thing that blew my mind was that — on the day of the opening and the talk — so many people showed up. They turned 100 people away. They told me at the museum that they’d never filled the auditorium before. And I felt, ‘Maybe they’d been waiting for 20 years, too.’ It was wonderful. It’s a game-changer to have a show like that.”
Also in April, the de Young Museum announced it had acquired Carrie Mae Weems’ 2012 video piece called Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me — A Story in 5 Parts. The work — now in a gallery that’s just a short walk from “Only Human” — is an 18-minute tour de force. Set in a theater-like gallery, Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me is Weems’ unique take on race and segregation in America, and the long, winding road that led to the Civil War (and which winds its way through this country’s soul still). Using slow-motion video that appears, disappears, and then fades back into view like dreamy clouds, Weems addresses the audience with a voice that is resolved and inquisitive. She includes other authoritative voices, too — and background music and spirituals that merge blues, jazz, rock, and gospel.
Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me is part of the museum’s “Specters of Disruption” Contemporary galleries presentation, and will be up until April 30 next year.
“I think the root of all my work is this idea of embracing,” Weems told SF Weekly in 2013. “I’m hoping that women, in the fullness of their humanity, will be embraced. I’m hoping that people of color, in the depths of their humanity, will be embraced for who they are.” Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me embraces the question of race and historical memory, and how it never fades away. The installation is an intense and edifying experience — and a visual and auditory example of why Weems is one of America’s most innovative visual artists.
“Judy Dater: Only Human,” through Sept. 16 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive (Golden Gate Park). $6-$15, 415-750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org
“Carrie Mae Weems: Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts,” on display through April 30, 2019 as part of the de Young Museum’s “Specters of Disruption” Contemporary galleries presentation