Judy Dater’s use of the camera as an instrument to penetrate core psychologies has long since gained her international notoriety. Intensely personal and compelling, her provocative photographs capture the rawness beneath the surface aspects of her subjects.
Throughout a career that spans 40 years, technical diversity has been a staple. She has worked with Polaroid 20x20, digital cameras, and Adobe Photoshop to exhibit a wide range of looks, from collages to multi-pane treatments to pictures within pictures.
Her early photographs were created during a period of unfolding American feminism, when women displaying male frontal nudity was shocking and when a woman’s approach to herself was complicated by social stereotypes. It was a time when women artists ceased censoring their own bodies, freeing their natural eroticism from male-defined pornography.
Dater’s uninhibited portrayals of the female body broke through women’s acculturated and socially constructed dissatisfaction with self. They were in sync, at the time, with the mythic body rituals of early femi-nist performance. In fact, she viewed photography as a type of performance, manipulating props and composition in the construction of a narrative.
Her provocative portraits lie in a median between Annie Leibovitz’s evocations of social trappings and Diane Arbus’ straightforward piercing of society’s substrata. Dater examines how we define ourselves through social roles, bringing out her subjects’ personalities by the dress and environments in which they are posed.
Her women not only break through identity fixations, but art barriers as well. By subverting the Victorian idealization of woman’s passive vulnerability, her subjects are a far cry from paradigms of refinement and passivity. . .personified, for example, by the mythic dreamy images of Julia Magaret Cameron. Nor, as historically presented, glorified bodies for male fantasies. They are, rather, sophisticated beings, soulful, idiosyncratic and comfortable with their sexuality. The partially nude Maggie, for instance, gazes directly into the camera, insolent in her presumptive freedom. Her modernist forthrightness undermines stereotypical ideals of womanliness.
Dater cites as her influences the formalist styles of August Sander and Edward Weston, but she credits Imogen Cunningham as an important role model. In her 1974 photograph Imogen and Twinka, she portrays the fully dressed aging photographer eying a young nude model. . .a reversal of another historical favorite, dressed men eying nude girls.
Contending that “pictures of other people are always sort of a self-portrait,” Dater’s sense of her own identity is reinforced by her interaction with her subjects. In her autobiographical explorations, her theatrical propensities once again come to the fore. Picking up on the ambivalence of her subjects, she confronts her own transformative sides through role-play. Photographs in a variety of guises and personalities, particularly stereotypical woman’s roles, bear a close resemblance to the self-parodies of Cindy Sherman.
In the 1980s, nature became another avenue into the magical powers of transformation. The vast expanse of the New Mexico landscape, for one, became the canvas for a series of self-portraits.
Women’s relationship to nature was paramount in the ritualistic earth performances of artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Anna Mendieta. The biological and spiritual use of their bodies in nature was a way of tapping into symbolic manifestations of female power. Dater’s splayed nude body against a serpentine symbol in Self-portait with Petroglyph reconnects her with ancient goddess figures. In Self-Portrait with Stone, her body blends with the rocky landscape. By connecting in a tangible way to the environment, she becomes part of the broader image of nature.
Continuing to penetrate facades, her later portraits focus on close-ups. In large blurred images of Geraldine Fitzgerald, for example, Dater directly confronts Fitzgerald’s transitory states of mind. The range of sensations registered on her craggy aging face is palpable. The props are gone. What remains is raw emotion. . .the essence of Dater’s works.