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Bohemian, Feminist & Californian: Judy Dater & Her Photos at the de Young

Bohemia as a lifestyle and a state of mind was born in Paris at about the same time as the French Revolution of 1848. Too volatile and rambunctious to stay put on the Left Bank, it quickly moved to New York’s Greenwich Village and then to San Francisco’s North Beach, where it helped give birth to the Beat Generation and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary bookstore, City Lights.

The rise of the bourgeoisie in Europe and in the U.S. made bohemia look attractive. Indeed, it offered community in place of alienation, brothers and sisters instead of the traditional family and art rather than commodities, though some bohemian artists and writers sold their work to the bourgeoisie, made money and became famous.

Bohemia is still alive today and for many of the same reasons that originally gave birth to it.

Contemporary nonconformists of all sorts, including Beats, beatniks, hippies, punks and generation Z rebels can see bohemian art at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The exhibit is titled “Only Human” and it features the photographs of Judy Dater. It opened on April 7 and lasts until September 16, 2018.

Karl Marx himself would approve of the title and the work.  After all, he often said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Though he wasn’t a bohemian, he often lived like one. The German police who kept tabs on Marx described him as a “bohemian” in their reports on his activities.

Nothing human, including the naked human body, has been alien to Judy Dater who was born in Hollywood, California in 1941, the daughter of a movie-theater owner. She attended UCLA and San Francisco State University and she has been taking pictures of her friends, sometimes in the nude, for sixty-plus years.

Dater has taken photos in Italy, France and Mexico and all across the American West, but her work embodies a certain sense of freedom and openness that has found its fullest expression in bohemian California.

This is especially true of her black-and-white photo titled “Lovers # 2” from 1965 that shows a naked white woman and a naked black man entwined and that cries out for integration.

Dater’s most iconic picture depicts the photographer, Imogen Cunningham, then about 80, and an 18-year-old model named Twinka Thiebaud, the daughter of famed California artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Bohemians definitely flocked together.

That photo is called “Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite.” Cunningham is fully clothed. Twinka is stark naked. There’s a big, old oak tree in the photo, perhaps the most famous oak in any picture by an American photographer.

Cunningham once said, perhaps thinking about Ansel Adams’ photos of Yosemite, “a landscape without a person is very lonely.”

Cunningham and Dater both included people in their landscapes. In Dater’s “Self-portrait with Stone” from the Badlands of South Dakota, she fits right in with the stark landscape itself. Curled up in a fetal position, she looks like another stone, albeit human.

Her 1977 photo of Ansel Adams in Carmel, California, shows him smiling and with his eyes closed under the leaves of a tree.

Rarely, has Adams looked so human.

Recently, Dater has been taking photos of people with their guns, though she herself doesn’t own one and has never fired a pistol or a revolver. She goes places she has never been before and investigates with her eyes and her camera.

Dater has taken stunning nude photos of herself, though none of them would be called pornographic or obscene, at least not by the standards of the U.S. Supreme Court. Her photos of naked men show their genitals, but they’re not lewd.

“I don’t ask people to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” she told members of the audience in the Koret Auditorium at the de Young on April 7, 2018. They had gathered to hear her, her models and her friends talk about her work.

A sense of intimacy was created right on the stage.

For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, “Only Human,” some of the pictures from 1964-2016, are reprinted in a lavish coffee-table book of the same name that includes one hundred black-and-white plates. (Marymount Institute Press and TSEHAI Publishers, $49.95.)

There are illuminating essays by three art curators: Marilyn Symmes, Gloria Williams Sander and Donna Stein.

Dater has photographed men, such as Berkeley professor, Leon Litwick, but she’s renowned for her pictures of women, some of them well known, like Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of Woman Warrior and other books and who has also worked with Vietnam veterans.

Most of Dater’s photos are of ordinary people that her art turns into extraordinary individuals.

Call her a woman warrior with a camera.

Her photos are beautiful, mysterious and also whimsical, such as the photo titled “Ties that Bind” that depicts a naked woman festooned with men’s ties and wearing an elegant pearl necklace.

Art critics have described her as a “feminist.” It’s a label she wears proudly. At the panel discussion devoted to her work at the de Young, Dater told a large audience of several hundred fans and followers, “I call myself a feminist. I’m strong and independent and I’m for equal pay for equal work.”

She added, “I’ve had good times and shitty times and I’ve never stopped working, good or bad.”

She’s not afraid to use four-letter- and six-letter-words in public.

Three of Dater’s models, including Twinka Thiebaud, shared the stage with her at the de Young, and, while they didn’t have equal time with the artist herself, they received recognition for the parts they’ve played in the creation of her work.

In a revealing essay in the book, Only Human, Dater describes her innermost self and the way that she has worked.

“Naked photos take us out of the realm of the ‘normal’ and a highly charged drama develops between the model and myself that requires a balance between control and abandon,” she writes.

Most viewers are drawn initially to her nudes. They come away from those photos with a new, deep appreciation for the human body.

The original nineteenth-century Parisian bohemians and the Beats of the twentieth-century would recognize Dater as a cultural descendant who has taken the art of photography into realms never previously explored.

“Judy Dater: Only Human” at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, California, April 7, 2018 – September 16, 2018.

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