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A Conversation with Judy Dater

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

First Exposures mentee Tanya Hernandez spent a day in the studio with renowned Bay Area photographer Judy Dater, talking about all things art and life. In her fifth year as a mentee, Tanya is embarking on her own path as a photographer. Judy shared advice on photography and pursuing your dreams, reflecting on her own evolution from a pioneering feminist artist of the 1970s to now, on the heels of her first exhibition in 20 years at the de Young museum.

Tanya: How did you begin and get into photography? How did you get introduced to it?

Judy: Well, I suppose through my father because he was an amateur photographer and I thought that was very cool and I’d always wanted to borrow his camera and take pictures. Once in a while, you know, he’d let me do it. Also, he owned a movie theatre and so I grew up going to the movies and saw anything with film and darkrooms and it just kind of interested me. I was also really interested in art and drawing and painting ever since I was a kid. When I went to high school I took a lot of art classes, and when I went to college I became an art major; and when I was a senior, I finally took a photography class. I had a lot of art background and I just took this class because I had been interested in it and I thought I was going to like it and I loved it and it was like magic. Then I thought, “This is totally what I want to do.” And I pretty much stopped doing everything else - kind of gave up the drawing, the painting, the printmaking, and the ceramics. I had done everything, but once I had discovered photography, it was just love at first sight and that was just what I had to do….but I was already a senior in college by the time I had taken my first class.

T: So, guess you never know with college? [laughter]

J: You never know what’s going to come.

That’s what it’s for. [laughter]

T: I know, personally, photography has helped me find a community and helped me find my voice and confidence. How has photography shaped you as a person and how has it contributed to your life?

J: Uh...goodness gracious. Well, I tell I’ll you. Right before I came over here I was putting a lecture together about this very thing. ‘Cause my show that was at the de Young, is going to LA and it’s going to open there October 6th at Loyola Marymount at their gallery. So, I have to give a lecture on the day before the opening to beginning students and I was just trying to figure it out. You know, fifty-some years of photography. I just got through throwing away 20 slides because I thought, no, this is gonna get way too long. It’s such a huge question. I was in my twenties when I started and I fell in love with it and it almost was like a religion. It was so intense. This thing, it was like all I cared about and I think really early on, I realized what I wanted to do was to photograph people. I wanted to photograph, first of all, myself. I did a lot of self-portraits and then I wanted to photograph my friends and then I pretty much wanted to photograph my women friends. So I think everything that I did right from the beginning just informed me about myself. And this whole thing was like a process of self-discovery. Just like you. You’ve found your voice, you’ve found your community, and for me, it was just this way of communicating. With photography, I personally really like content and I really like narrative. I mean, I like abstract art, but I can’t do it. It’s not the thing I want to do. I want to do something that tells a story and that has meaning. I’m not interested in non-meaning. So, I think it was just a perfect medium for me – a way to express myself and push my own boundaries and do things that I was afraid to do. I was afraid to talk to strangers and I was afraid to talk to people and I had to do it because it was what I wanted to photograph. I did a lot of self-portraits nude in a landscape that were scary if I wanted to show myself. Then I was photographing strange men and that was scary. A lot of it had to do with being counterphobic. So, I guess that’s how it shaped me or I shaped it or we found each other or something. It was like finding the right medium so that I can express myself and the way I felt I needed to.

T: I noticed in your exhibition at the de Young Judy Dater: Only Human there were a lot of people and I was wondering about the process of choosing who you photograph.

J: It’s very intuitive. I end up doing these little projects. I started out by photographing women and so I was limiting myself to that as a subject. Of course, the women that I was seeing at that point in my life when I was in my twenties were around my age and those were the people I was interacting with. I don’t know that you could or that I could describe what it is about a person that attracts me but I see people whose faces or in the way they’re dressed or the way that they’re presenting themselves that I’m attracted to for whatever reason. You know, like you’ll be attracted to someone because you’re going to fall in love with them (but I wasn’t in love with these people). But, there’s an attraction that draws you. Like anything. You can be attracted to certain kinds of food, certain kinds of dogs, certain kinds of people. There’s just something about them that you find interesting, intriguing, beautiful, strange or weird or ugly or whatever it is. You’re interested in them. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know that anyone could exactly describe it or define it but at least within the category “Okay, I’m gonna do women that are kind of near my age,” “...between 5 - 10 years younger,” or “...5 - 10 years older,” there’s a group of people that I’m focusing on. Eventually, over time, I’m not doing men or women I’m doing people and then it was just anybody that I saw that attracted me and I never really know what it is. The only thing that I’m ever able to determine for myself in regard to that is...this is a dirty word but I’m kind of attracted to exotic looking people. I know that’s a bad word now. We can’t say exotic but something other than myself. I’m attracted to the other and I don’t know why. I know that about myself. I find myself being attracted to that and I like it. I think it’s great.

T: In terms of creating a series what’s the process like? Do you initially have an idea in the back of your mind? I know sometimes I see a certain thing and I’m like “Wow, this is beautiful. I need to see multiple versions of it.” What’s behind the process of creating a series for you?

J: Well, it kind of comes out of what you’re already doing. Like with the woman thing, I realized I was photographing some of my women friends and they seemed to me to be the most interesting pictures I was taking at that particular moment in time and I thought, “Oh, okay, well I guess I should photograph women,” and so then I just decided to focus on that. Then I kind of ran out of gas with that after about 10 years and I thought, “Well, okay, what should I do next?” and then I thought I should photograph men because I photograph people and there’s women and there’s men. Now there’s not just women and men, but that’s okay too. Now I’m photographing people with guns. That came about because I saw a painting that I liked of a gun that was really kind of disturbing, intriguing, and all kinds of stuff and I wanted to do something with guns that talked about the problem of guns and all the mass shootings. And because I photograph people, I thought, “How am I going to do this? Well, I guess I’ve got to photograph people that own guns.” So, I don’t just wake up one morning with an idea. It pretty much comes from what I’m already doing. I have no idea of what I’m doing next. I think maybe I’ll retire. [laughter]

T: So, what motivates you to take photographs and do you ever get artists block, like you don’t know what to take photos of or you feel uninspired?

J: Oh, never.

T: Never?

J: Never. Never had a day like that. [laughter]

No, there’s been many long periods when I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I would call it wandering in the desert. There was a whole year of when I really had absolutely no idea of what I wanted to photograph. So, I made myself take a picture every single day with my 35mm. I was just taking it in the morning as I was walking around in the dog park and it was excruciating because there were so many days where I saw absolutely nothing that I wanted to photograph and I just thought, “Okay, I’ll take a picture of the ceiling or the cement or whatever; I just have to click the button.” That was a pretty bad year, let me tell you. I got a couple of pictures out of it but mostly it was pretty grim. I don’t remember what finally broke that but something came along and I started doing something but it was a long time. There were plenty of other times like that. There have been times where I've gone on tangents and I did things that were experimental or this, that and there’s a lot of garbage. I just threw a lot of it out recently, but there are a lot of slow times.

T: I can relate to that a lot. Especially, over the summer when I don’t have my film camera and I have my phone and I just feel so uninspired by this phone and the world around me right now. I know I struggled a lot with that over the summer because I usually spend my summers at home doing a lot of work for school. I always like asking people what do they do, like, are there any activities that will get them out of that? It’s nice that I’m not the only one. [laughter]

J: I doubt that you are the only one. [laughter]

I doubt that we are the only two. [laughter]

I think a lot of people have those issues. I don’t know. It’s very hard to be continually self-motivated. I think you need to have feedback and encouragement from the outside world. To be an artist of any kind, you need money! And people to say that they like what you're doing. You can’t just work in a total vacuum. A few artists have done that, but it’s pretty hard. Some people work for 20 years and they think that they want to be an artist and after 20 years they realize nothing is happening and then they have a career change and they think “Well, I guess it’s not going to happen,” but you’ve got to try, but not unless you really care or want to do it. So, I did it long enough and I did get a lot of encouragement early on and that helped me keep going. Even when there were all these certain slow-slow-nothing-happening times. I don’t have any magic answer for that. Except go to a movie, go gardening; just do something to keep yourself from going crazy.

T: Have you ever struggled being a woman in photography? What's been your experience since you started?

J: Well, it’s been mixed and strange. I would say, early on when I was young, a lot of men encouraged me...I was super young and pretty and so that didn’t hurt. You know, I didn't have problems with men not wanting to show my work or help me but that didn’t last forever. I don’t really want to blame it on the men so to speak and I’m not blaming it on the men but I don't think that I've suffered being a woman as a photographer the way some of the women have been suffering in Hollywood – being a woman in Hollywood and fighting that male establishment. There is a male establishment in photography especially, on the east coast when I was younger. I think it’s changed somewhat. There are a lot of women in museums that are the curators. Just right now, I’m thinking, the two main curators that are left at the de Young (now all the men have fled) are women. The chief curator there is a woman and the photography curator is a woman. The chief curator of Los Angeles County of Museum of Art and Photography is a woman. I think there are three women at the photography part of LACMA. There’s a woman at the museum of modern art here [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]... Anyway, there are women out there so it’s not the same as it used to be. I think when I was starting pretty much all the women – actually, one woman at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was Anne [Wilkes] Tucker and she kind of gave me my first big break and she bought a print for the museum. She wasn’t the head curator; she was the assistant curator but she did a book and put me on the cover of the book. So, it’s been all over the place.

T: I have one last question. What challenges do you see for young artists or creators in this society when you compare to when you were younger… but you’re still very young [laughter].

J: Oh gosh. Well, I think that maybe the glut of information and pictures and photography that’s out there right now because everyone's a photographer, because everyone has one of these [points to phone] and everybody thinks that they can take great pictures. So, I think in that regard, just the ease of it. With so much stuff out there, how do you rise above it and do something different and do something unique that really stands out from the crowd that’s new and interesting and important? How do you have a voice that’s fresh? I think it’s harder today given technology and Instagram to be able to rise above and make a statement. I think that’s one of the problems. I don’t think that it has anything to do with the kind of camera. I don’t think gelatin silver is better than digital or whatever. It’s not about that. When I went to school, they weren’t teaching theory. There was no theory. Everything was like, “You want to be an artist? Well how do you feel?” Now you have to know all of this theory stuff and it just seems a little more complicated to me. I felt like when we were all going to school you were just going to come in making our pictures and it was a very small community and if anybody wanted to be a photographer, it was like, “Well come on in, be part of the club.” I remember I felt like photography hadn't really become a commodity yet and now it’s very competitive. When did that really start happening? Probably in the ‘70s. People kind of discovered photography and thought that it was a commodity and they were beginning to have photography galleries and that changed a lot of things and then there was the whole art star thing. When I started there was none of that. Nobody went in thinking that they were ever going to make any money, that they were ever going to be famous, that they were ever going to have a book. I remember that if there was a photography book printed I would buy it and anybody that was a photographer in the United States probably had all four books that had been printed on photography and now you can't even begin to keep up. There are just so many people out there. The competition is just insane.

T: Yeah, I can totally vouch for the competition thing. So, we technically have a photography club at my school and it’s really competitive and they don't want anyone joining. I feel like it would be so much nicer if it was supportive of what people had to bring and different ideas. It must just be like high schoolers being high schoolers but…

J: So, how is it in terms of male to female in terms of that?

T: It’s definitely female dominated. I think there’s one male. I talk to a lot of people who are in it and they tell me you have to be interviewed to get in but they always tell me that “All these guys, I hear them talking about how they want to join, but are scared because of all of the women in the club.” [laughter]

J: It sounds like the girls club that use to be in my high school.

The Dominos. That was the name of the club that I was in when I was in high school. The Dominos. I mean, they were horrible. They were horrible, all those clubs. So, forget the clubs. Once you get out into the world, and also, it seems to me the other thing that's happening now, the galleries, because of the way things are structured monetarily, galleries really like to get younger artists because they kind of want to bring them along. So, a lot of galleries have been pretty much getting people right out of art school. So, if you’re an older artist and you don’t have a gallery it’s pretty hard. They don’t even want to talk to you. You have to make it early on. I’ve seen friends that have been away and they started to do it and then they kind of gave it up and had a family and when they come back they want to kind of get back in the game and nobody wants to talk to them.

Part of it is timing and a lot of it is luck… well, not luck, I mean you have to have something. You know, it’s just a quirky business. I used to call it the non-business. I don’t want to discourage you. I don’t, I don’t. I really think if it’s something you like and you want to do it then you should just do it and see what happens.

T: It’s hard. I know I don’t have the support from my mom or my siblings. That’s like trying to become an actor [laughter]. So it’s rough but its something that has had such a big impact on me. I can completely see myself sticking to it and just seeing where it gets me because I’m so devoted to photography at this point. I can really see myself perhaps having a career or a hobby at least.

J: Oh, you can’t let that stop you. I mean parents never want you to be an artist. My parents didn't want me to become an artist. They didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it but it’s like, “Well, okay, but you have to get a teaching credential. You can go and do your art stuff but you have to do something as a fallback position.” So, I did. I got a teaching credential and I taught high school for a tiny bit until I was going to have a nervous breakdown and then I went back to graduate school and I’ve taught on and off different places. I haven't made a living selling my photography for the past 55 years; I can tell you that. There have been a lot of things I’ve had to do to sort of patch it together. But if it’s really what you want to do, you have to see if you can try to make it work, but it doesn’t count that your mother doesn’t want to support you [laughter] because they never want you to be an actor, they never want you to be an artist; it’s an insane thing that you want to do but you have to just do it. That’s for sure.

T: Well, I’ll probably have to apply to a couple of art schools behind my mother's back. [laughter]

J: Just don’t let that get in your way. Because I wanted to go to school in New York and my parents didn’t even want me to move out of the house. I wanted to apply to NYU or Columbia. I didn't know anything about it really and I wrote a letter and asked for an application and it never showed up and I’m convinced my mother mailed it away. Years later I thought about it and think, “Why didn’t that ever come?” I ended up going to UCLA and then I ended up coming up here, but I ended up getting married to get out of the house. So, you just gotta do what you gotta do. That’s all I can say.

You gotta do what you gotta do. It doesn't matter what it is.

T: Yeah I know I’m passionate enough to follow that career, but I’m not sure.

J: You’re still young. You’ll figure it out. But if you start to twitch then you know that's it's time to get out. Then you just don't do it anymore. Really, your body will tell you if you’re doing something that you’re not supposed to be doing. You really want to trust that. It’s really hard to trust your instincts but they’re pretty much always right. Whenever I don’t do it, I regret it. So, that's what I would say, “You gotta trust your instincts.”

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