Ruth Bernhard (October 14, 1905 - December 18th, 2006) was an a German-born American photographer known for her intimate portraits of women in the nude and abstract representations of the female body. Bernhard was raised by two schoolteachers and their mother as a result of her parents divorce at the age of two. Ruth’s father, Lucian Bernhard, was known for his poster design and typeface design; both of which are still in use and fairly popular.
Ruth studied art history and typography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin before moving to New York to be with her father in 1927. While living in New York, she started working as an assistant to Ralph Steiner from Delineator magazine. Down the line, he terminated Bernhard from the position due to a difference of opinions on the quality of Bernhards work. Ruth then used her severance pay to buy her own photography equipment.
During her time while in Manhattan, she became very involved in the lesbian sub-culture within the artist community. It was during this time that she became friends with photographer Berenice Abbott and her lover, Elizabeth McCuausland. Bernhards first realization of potential attraction to women happened in 1928 when she met painter Patti Light. She later went on to write about her bisexual experiences in her memoir.
Starting in 1934, she began photographing women in the nude and it was through this form of art that she gained her fame and recognition. In 1944, Ruth met and fell in love with artist Eveline Phimister and not long after, the two of them moved in together and re-located to Carmel, California. After realizing the difficulties of finding work in Carmel, the two of them moved to Hollywood where Ruth would start working as a commercial photographer. In 1953, the two of them moved to San Francisco where Bernhard would soon become a colleague to renowned photographers like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Minor White.
Ruth Bernhards most well-known work is definitely her studio still lives and very “strange” nudes. She was also known for her work that surrounded the idea of lesbians and the lifestyle between lesbians. One of her most famous pieces, “Two Forms” is of a black and white woman who were lovers in real life featuring their nude bodies up against one another. The way that Ruth photographed the nude female body is truly impeccable. Ansel Adams would even go on to say that she was “the greatest photographer of the nude”.
Ruth Bernhards work is an incredible inspiration to me and an influencer of my own work. The way she captures the female body is truly exquisite and I haven't ever seen someone capture the pure essence of nudity the way that she does. I think what makes her nude photographs different than everything I have seen is that they all have such a mysterious aspect to them. The photos in which the female body is shown, there is never enough of the face shown to make a connection of who the person could be. Going off of that same idea, so many of her nudes do not even show the entire body, but rather show a sense of forced intimacy by being incredibly close to the woman's body. In my own work, I love photographing nude women and women in general, but the more I see of Ruth Bernhards work, the more I want to continue to take photographs of the female body in a way that takes away the science behind the female figure and magnifies, instead, the artistic form.
"Two Forms" 1962
Some of my favorite work of Ruth Bernhards is her photos of found objects from Mother Nature that embody the female form and female body parts.
This photo, in particular, is one of my favorites due to its visual similarities to "Winged Victory". This sculpture is one of my favorite pieces of art due to its powerful message about women and the strength all women have within them. Ruth Berhnards photo, to me, does exactly the same thing. It shows strength within the female form while also showing the tiniest visuals of delicacy from the wrinkles in the fabric across the stomach to the woman's nipples poking through the fabric across her breasts.
"I want my photos to show what I see through my eyes, not the lens of a camera. I photograph things very tenderly as if I were to have tears in my eyes."
- Ruth Bernhard
All work courteous of Ruth Bernhard.