Profiles in Black & White: Ruth Bernhard

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on September 16, 2013 at 2:54 pm

“Woman has been the subject of much that is sordid and cheap, especially in photography. To raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman has been my mission”

Ruth Bernhard

Classic Torso with Hands, 1952. John Stevenson Gallery

Classic Torso with Hands, 1952. John Stevenson Gallery

Ruth Bernhard was born and raised in Berlin, Germany. After graduating from the Berlin Academy of Art in 1927, she would move to New York City. Her father was already known  for his poster and typeface design. Her first position in photography would be as a darkroom assistant to Ralph Steiner. She proved indifferent to the job, however, leading Steiner to fire her. With her severance pay, Bernhard would buy her first photography equipment.

Inspired by the work of Edward Weston, she traveled to California in a hope to meet him. She was successful, encountering him on the beach of Santa Monica in 1935. Weston would become her mentor for many years. On first seeing Weston’s work, Bernhard commented according to the New York Times, “It was light in the darkness. Here before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible – an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography.” About a decade after their first meeting, Bernhard would join Group f/64 to become an official colleague of Weston and many western modern photographers such as Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham. Unlike many of her colleagues, however, she would focus her work primarily indoors rather than explore the western landscape.

After experimenting with both men and women in Manhattan, her evolution of vision transposed her art through photographing the nude female form. This, along with still lifes, would be her main focus of pictures during the course of her career. Another characteristic of Bernhard’s work was her use of light and shadow, a technique often leading to a dramatic result. These scenes were often crafted in a meticulous fashion, occasionally taking days to construct.

Gracing the world for over a century, Bernhard wasn’t one to keep her knowledge to herself. Initially teaching was a way to supplement her income, but it continued to be a passion of hers once her career took off commercially. She would hold classes well into her nineties. Bernhard finally died in 2006 in San Francisco. During her lifetime, Bernhard published three different solo books of her work: Collecting Light in 1979, The Eternal Body: A Collection of Fifty Nudes in 1986, and Gift of the Commonplace, in 1996. Eternal Body would win Photography Book of the Year in 1986 from Friends of Photography.

More information and examples of her work can be found at: Ruth Bernhard.

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