Bess Matlock ’12 Opens Kitao Exhibit on Activist and Photographer Dorothy Marder

A photo exhibit of peace activist Dorothy Marder—organized and hosted by Bess Matlock ’12—opened on Friday and ran through the weekend. The exhibit displays her photographs from movements such as the anti-Vietnam war, anti-nuclear proliferation and women’s rights groups from the 70’s up to the late 90’s. From momentos of Marder’s personal lifetime struggles to her portrayals of activists in the later half of the 20th century, Matlock’s exhibit demonstrates a vast array of Marder’s lived experience both as an passionate activist and skilled photographer.

Provided by Bess Matlock

An activist herself, Marder created psychological portraits of her fellow demonstrators at their most ardent moments. The photographs are ordered chronologically from Marder’s first work with anti-war demonstrations, to her later work with feminist marches and gay pride events. Colorful t-shirts also hung along the gallery’s wall, each from a specific protest that Marder attended.

Marder began her life’s work with the Women’s Strike For Peace movement, an anti-Vietnam war group. After the end of the Vietnam War, Marder become more involved with the War Resistor’s League, and other anti-nuclear weapon proliferation groups before moving on to the Women’s Liberation Movement and gay pride activism. Near the end of her life, Marder worked with LGBT organizations like Identity House in New York City.

Marder encountered many difficulties in her life that influenced her activism and photography. Raised in rigidly conservative household, Marder had an unexpected pregnancy as a teenager that resulted in a dangerous “back-alley” abortion procedure. Additionally, Marder married at a young age, but felt trapped by her husband. She eventually divorced and came out as a lesbian.

Provided by Bess Matlock

Matlock, the organizer and hostess of the exhibit, explained, “Marder’s personal struggles influenced her photography and activism … Because of what she went through, she was able to identify with other oppressed people.”

In 2007, Dorothy Marder passed away and her family donated a collection of her work to Swarthmore’s Peace Collection. The extensive donation included thousands of photographs, all of Marder’s negatives and contact sheets, Marder’s writing and notes as well as countless t-shirts and other paraphernalia from demonstrations she attended. Matlock works with the Peace Collection and was originally designated to archive Marder’s work and create an online exhibition.

“Through archiving Marder’s work,” Matlock said, “I started to learn more about her and I really got into her photography. They’re beautiful photographs. The more I learned about her, the more I learned about the politics behind the photographs which makes them all the more interesting.”

Avery Davis ’12 commented on the gallery, “Most of all, I’m struck by the emotion of the demonstrator’s faces in Marder’s photographs. I’m also impressed that [Matlock] was able to organize the collections and create the online exhibit all by herself.”

“I really admire the way she pursued her passion and self-discovery. I also admire how her dedication to activism grew throughout her life,” Matlock said. “Until the very end of her life, she was doing research and thinking about art and photography and other social issues. She was always a learner and a really resilient, cool woman who was possibly ahead of her time.”

Her online exhibit of Marder’s work can be found here.


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