Poets, Prophets and Pioneers

February 8 - April 4, 2024

Reception for the artist Thursday, February 8, 6-8PM


Tongo Eisen-Martin


archival pigment print; Edition: 10
16 x 20 inches



When Judy Dater was invited to photograph the Black philosopher and activist Angela Davis, she set up her large-format camera and waited. Davis was supposed to speak at a Loyola Marymount University event, but her plane was delayed. With minutes to spare before her lecture was scheduled to start, Davis arrived and graciously took a seat in front of Dater. The time required to expose a large format negative meant that Dater could take only a couple of pictures, far fewer than she would typically make to achieve the psychologically acute and aesthetically sophisticated portraits for which she is famous. “I decided to take a chance,” she recalls. “For my last shot I told her I was going to close my eyes and she could give me whatever expression she wanted. She smiled, completely relaxed. For me it turned out to be her best pose and photograph.”


The trust and rapport that Dater establishes between her and her subjects are essential to Dater’s oeuvre. Since the 1960s, Dater has taken some of the most sensitive formal portraits of her age, focusing her lens on subjects both famous and anonymous with an equal degree of empathetic respect.


In celebration of Black History Month, MODERNISM is pleased to present a preview of Dater’s most recent and ongoing portrait series, in which she depicts Black intellectuals ranging from the eminent Angela Davis and Wole Soyinka to San Francisco’s 44-year-old poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin.


It was Soyinka who got Dater started on this new series. A year before she photographed Davis, Dater was invited to Loyola Marymount for an event where the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian poet, playwright, and novelist was to be interviewed by Harvard professor and historian Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. Dater had previously met Soyinka very briefly, and viewed him as an ideal portrait subject. “I was very taken with his presence, his voice and his intense and regal demeanor,” she recalls.  At the LMU event, she had the opportunity to make portraits of both Soyinka and Gates. When she returned to photograph Davis, she also had the chance to make a portrait of the philosopher and activist Cornel West. She’d embarked on a new body of work without realizing it.
On the strength of those initial portraits and with the help of her friend Russ Ellis, former University of California, Berkeley vice chancellor who she first photographed twenty years ago, she has made a number of formal portraits of Black individuals with the intention of creating an extensive series. Her Black subjects have excelled in fields ranging from sociology and law to literature and art. “I have always chosen subjects who I find visually compelling,” she says. “My latest portraits are specifically of Black people who matter because they have made a difference to our society and culture. It is a privilege to welcome people of such achievement and humanity to my studio. It is without a doubt one of the most meaningful experiences of my more than fifty years as a portrait photographer.


Inspired by numerous photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, and her mentor Imogen Cunningham, Dater approaches her subjects straightforwardly, and presents them with dignity, a feeling of their humanity and intensity. Her unique combination of technical expertise, empathy, and insight underlies her artistic vision.


“My purpose has always been to create camera portraits that bring out a part of the inner life of my subjects, to answer the question of what makes a person shine,” she explains. “My process harks back to the early days of photography, large format film, view camera, and natural light.  I find that my deliberate technique promotes trust and collaboration with my sitters, which is critical to capturing the visual essence of the individual in front of my lens.”