Getting under the surface
Publication Date: Friday Apr 12, 1996

Getting under the surface

Smith Andersen Gallery presents recent work by acclaimed Palo Alto photographer Judy Dater

by Monica Hayde

During a lecture that photographer Judy Dater gave recently in Honolulu, a man in the audience spat out a shocking query: Wasn't she afraid of someone trying to shoot her? It's rare that reaction to her provocative nudes and unapologetic self-portraits is quite so hateful or strong. But Dater is used to strong reactions to her work. She is certainly not afraid to shock.

The Palo Alto photographer--who is nearing the end of a world tour with a 30-year retrospective of her award-winning work--has said she wants "to explore the subterranean, the hidden side of myself."

In the introduction to the gorgeous, slick coffee table book that accompanies "Cycles," her 30-year retrospective, Dater says: "I am curious about human beings and human nature, theater and role-playing, costumes and disguises, humor, psychology, sexuality, romance and stories, the dark side of things, the cosmic."

Her current show of black and white prints at Palo Alto's Smith Andersen Gallery offers evidence of Dater's preoccupation with what lies under the surface.

It's all recent work--photographs taken in the past two years in Spain, France, California and a few points in between. These new works don't have the sexual charge or in-your-face honesty of much of Dater's earlier explorations, but the portraits, street scenes and light-infused impressions still reflect a preoccupation with sensuality and her fascination with theatricality.

A new experiment for Dater involves the exhibition of blown-up contact sheets, which, as she puts it, "really show the patterns of photography."

"I see them like a sketch book, something that shows the artist's process and the randomness of patterns that are created in the photographic process," says Dater, the only photographer represented by Smith Andersen.

"Choices: Recent Black and White Photographs by Judy Dater" will be on display at Smith Andersen through April 27. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays and by appointment.

Dater, who has called New York City, Santa Fe and San Anselmo home, has lived in Palo Alto for five years with her type designer husband Sumner Stone. She started her photography career while living in San Francisco with her first husband in the early 1960s. After getting her bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University, the Hollywood native went on to pursue a master's degree in art with an emphasis in photography.

At a 1964 conference in Big Sur on the life and work of Edward Weston, Dater made the acquaintance the likes of Ansel Adams, Brett Weston and Peter Stackpole. The budding photographer was particularly fascinated, however, by the legendary Imogen Cunningham, who had once shocked Seattle with her male nudes.

Cunningham expressed a desire to photograph the pretty Dater, and the two women became friends. Later, Dater would turn the camera on Cunningham. Her most famous shot of Cunningham is a charming juxtaposition of the aging photographer with model/actress Twinka Thiebaud, naked and sprightly next to a Yosemite pine.

After Cunningham's death in 1976, Dater went to work on a book--"a labor of love"--about the great photographer's life. She finished "Imogen Cunningham: A Portrait" just as she received news of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Despite the accolades (the Dorothea Lange Award, two National Endowments for the Arts), the book projects and major exhibitions at the De Saisset and other museums around the country, Dater went through some troubling periods, including a divorce from her one-time teacher and collaborator Jack Welpott. In the early 1980s, while living in Santa Fe, Dater turned personal angst into a series of revealing autobiographical portraits.

She balked at nothing, portraying herself as an overweight, bored housewife, and as an "Elephant Woman" in a grotesque girdle. (Many of these autobiographical portraits can be seen in the book "Cycles," available for perusal at Smith Andersen.)

Today, Dater is experimenting with computer software for photography and recovering from jet lag--having attended openings at each stop of her 30-year retrospective, "Cycles," which opened in Tokyo, and has traveled through Arles, France; New York City, Honolulu, Los Angeles and, finally Oakland.

"Choices: Recent Photographs by Judy Dater"

Where: Smith Andersen Gallery, 728 Emerson St., Palo Alto

When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through April 27

Information: 327-7762 

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