Ruth Bernhard’s photographs typically depict abstracted, sculpture-like renditions of the nude female form that the photographer herself termed “the eternal body.” Envisioning a cosmic interpretation, she equated the nude to a spiritual, sacred form that offers up communication with the divine. For Bernhard, the body connotes the universal whereas the face suggests an individuality. Thus, Bernhard characteristically obscured the model’s face in the final composition. Preferring a controlled environment, she rarely used her camera outside the studio. Bernhard also produced several series of still lifes that consisted of careful arrangements of commonplace objects such as seashells.
Born in Berlin on October 5, 1905, Ruth admitted to a rather distant relationship with her father, Lucien, a well-known German graphic artist and designer. Nevertheless, she still credited him for her ambition and drive. While studying art history and typography at the Berlin Academy of Art, she received an invitation from her father to join him in New York City, where he had accepted a new graphic design position. New York marked a new chapter in her life. She began as a darkroom assistant for Ralph Steiner, the current head of photography for The Delineater magazine; however, Steiner fired Ruth for her lack of enthusiasm on the job. With her severance pay, she purchased an eight-by-ten camera as a favor to friend in debt. With renewed interest in the medium, she became freelance photographer, receiving commissions from architects, designers, and artists.
A chance meeting with Edward Weston on a Santa Monica beach in 1935 altered and elevated Bernhard’s perception of photography. Weston, who would become a life-long friend and mentor, introduced her to the idea that photography could be an expressive medium, in addition to a commercial one. She moved to Santa Monica a year later, presumably to become Weston’s newest student. However, unbeknownst to her, Weston already had relocated north to Carmel, California. Rather than leave the West Coast, Bernhard established a commercial studio in Los Angeles near the Hollywood Bowl. Depending on the available professional opportunities, Bernhard shifted residences from California to New York and back throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She finally settled in San Francisco in 1953. The northern California city provided the photographer with numerous inspirations, mainly due to its stimulating and thriving artistic environment. Photographers such as Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Edward and his son Brett Weston, Minor White, and Bernhard all gathered at weekly forums and social gatherings to discuss their shared medium. By the late 1950s, Bernhard taught art classes locally, which became a mainstay in her life. Her classes allowed her to expound on and share her beliefs on art with a younger generation.
Ruth Bernhard’s lengthy career spanned more than seventy years, but she almost fell into obscurity until the 1970s when scholars “rediscovered” her work. She gained critical recognition for her work later in her career, receiving numerous awards, including the 1971 Dorothea Lange Award from the Oakland Museum of California and the 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art. The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco organized a large retrospective exhibition that toured internationally in 1986. Her photographs are in the collections of institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. As one of the few women photographers in a field dominated by men, Bernhard held her own and contributed greatly to the genre of the nude. She died at her San Francisco residence in 2006.