German photographer Ruth Bernhard was born in Berlin on October 14, 1905. Her father was acclaimed poster artist Lucian Bernhard, and after he relocated to New York, she joined him there in 1927. She got a job at The Delineator, a woman's publication, and during her brief tenure there, she began learning about photography by experimenting with an 8 x 10 view camera. Losing her job for lack of motivation actually motivated Miss Bernhard to embrace photography as a career. She began taking commercial and fashion photographs and published her first image, entitled Lifesavers, in 1930.
Miss Bernhard developed a lasting affinity for still life photography that was influenced by the avant-garde Bauhaus school. She photographed her first nude in 1934 while covering the Museum of Modern Art's Machine Art exhibition. Her nude photograph of a female friend posed in front of large stainless steel bowls received much attention, and soon nude photography became Miss Bernard’s trademark style.
A chance meeting with West Coast maverick photographer Edward Weston in 1935 turned out to be a life-changing experience. She opened a gallery in Los Angeles, and completely embraced Weston's notion that photography was a powerful art form. Her artistic photographs were exhibited to positive reviews at a gallery owned by bookseller Jake Zeitlin. One reviewer celebrated her use of light, which according to Miss Bernhard, was the best teacher a photographer could have. She believed light had its own language that describes the feelings and sensations of both photographer and subject. In addition to her nudes, Miss Bernhard also became known for hir artistic represnations of dolls, whom she treats in her images as children.
Returning to New York in 1939 as a commercial photographer, she began experimenting with naturer photography after her seashell images were well received at a Florida exhibit and were published in Natural History Magazine. Critics have noted that the influence of Mr. Weston is still evident in her work when comparing his photograph Nude by the Door with her Classic Torso. However, Miss Bernhard began distancing herself from Mr. Weston when she believed his work was motivated more by erotica than aesthetics. She was interested in depicting innocence, not seductiveness. Her passion for realistic simplicitiy was revealed in her painstaking still lifes of everyday objects like teapots and egg slicers.
Miss Bernhard joined the Women's Land Army during the Second World War and also participated in a New Jersey working farm cooperative. After the war, she went back to California and resumed her professional and personal relationship with Edward Weston. She moved to San Francisco in 1953, and joined an enclave of photographic artists that included Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. Miss Bernhard’s experimentation with still lifes continued with the seemingly simple yet complex In the Box (1962) and The Apple Tree, which further cemented her reputation within the artistic community.
In later years, she taught photography, which she claimed gave her greater satisfaction than did her photographs. She published her first book, The Eternal Body: A Collection of 50 Nudes, in 1970, and two limited edition portfolios followed thereafter. Her ability to work was compromised by an accidental inhalation of home heater fumes, but she continued to share her artistic philosophy with the next generation of photographers. She summed up her approach with her trademark simplicity: "A photograph is a new event, a new illusion of space and time." Ruth Bernhard died in San Francisco on December 18, 2006 at the age of 101.
2000 Creative Techniques for Nude Photography in Black & White (Buffalo, NY: Amherst Media, Inc.), p. 62.
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 123-124.
2000 Ruth Bernhard: Between Art & Life (San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC), pp. 7, 45.
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