Ruth Bernhard (October 14, 1905 –
December 18, 2006) was a German-born American photographer.
Bernhard was born in Berlin and studied at the Berlin Academy of Art
from 1925–27. Bernhard's father, Lucian Bernhard, was known for his
poster and typeface design, many of which bear his name and are
still in use.
In 1927 Bernhard moved to New York City, where her father was
already living. She worked as an assistant to Ralph Steiner in
Delineator magazine, but he terminated her employment for
indifferent performance. She used her severance pay to finance her
own photographic equipment. In 1935, she chanced to meet Edward
Weston on the beach in Santa Monica. She would later say;
I was unprepared for the experience
of seeing his pictures for the first time. It was overwhelming. It
was lightning in the darkness...here before me was indisputable
evidence of what I had thought possible—an intensely vital artist
whose medium was photography.
By the late-1920s, while living in Manhattan, Bernhard was heavily
involved in the lesbian sub-culture of the artistic community,
becoming friends with photographer Berenice Abbott and her lover,
critic Elizabeth McCausland. She wrote about her "bisexual
escapades" in her memoir. In 1934 Bernhard began photographing women
in the nude. It would be this art form for which she would
eventually become best known.
Though many people were unaware of
this, Bernhard produced the photography for the first catalog
published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The name of
this exhibition was "The Art of The Machine." Her father Lucian
Bernhard set up the meeting with MoMA for her.
By 1944 she had met and became
involved with artist and designer Eveline (Evelyn) Phimister. The
two moved in together, and remained together for the next ten years.
They first moved to Carmel, California, where Bernhard worked with
Group f/64. Soon, finding Carmel a difficult place in which to earn
a living, they moved to Hollywood where she fashioned a career as a
commercial photographer. In 1953, they moved to San Francisco.
Most of Bernhard's work is
studio-based, ranging from simple still lifes to complex nudes. In
the 1940s she worked with the conchologist Jean Schwengel. She
worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, though there are
rumours that she had done some color work as well. She also is known
for her lesbian themed works, most notably Two Forms (1962). In that
work, a black woman and a white woman who were real-life lovers are
featured with their nude bodies pressed against one another.
A departure was a collaboration
with Melvin Van Peebles (as "Melvin Van"), then a young cable car
gripman (driver) in San Francisco. Van Peebles wrote the text and
Bernhard took the unposed photographs for The Big Heart, a book
about life on the cable cars.
In the early 1980s, Bernhard
started to work with Carol Williams, owner of Photography West
Gallery in Carmel, California. Bernhard told Williams that she knew
there would be a book of her photography after her death, but hoped
one could be published during her lifetime. Williams approached New
York Graphics Society, and several other photographic book
publishers, but was advised that "only Ansel Adams could sell
black-and-white photography books." Bernhard and Williams decided to
sell five limited edition prints to raise the necessary funds to
publish a superior quality of book of Ruth Bernhard nudes. The
ensuing edition was produced by David Gray Gardner of Gardner
Lithograph, (also the printer of Adams's books) and was called The
Eternal Body. It won Photography Book of the Year in 1986 from
Friends of Photography. This book was often credited by Ruth
Bernhard as being an immeasurable help to her future career and
public recognition. The Eternal Body was reprinted by Chronicle
Books and later as a deluxe limited Centennial Edition in
celebration of Ruth Bernhard's 100th birthday in October, 2005.
Carol Williams credited Ruth Bernhard with encouraging her to
venture into book publishing, and later published several other
photographic monographs.
In the 1980s Bernhard also started
to work with Joe Folberg. Folberg bought Vision Gallery from Douglas
Elliott (who founded it in 1979) in San Francisco in 1982. Bernhard
and Folberg worked together until Folberg's death. The gallery split
with Debra Heimerdinger taking over operations in North America and
Folberg's son Neil moving the "Vision Gallery" to Jerusalem.
Heimerdinger has worked with Bernhard to introduce platinum prints
to her portfolio. Heimerdinger sells Bernhard's prints even today.
In 1967, Bernhard met United States
Air Force Colonel Price Rice, an African American man ten years
younger than her, and the two became lovers. They would remain
together until his death in 1999. In her 90s, Bernhard cooperated
with biographer Margaretta K. Mitchell in the book Ruth Bernhard,
Between Art and Life, publicly revealing her many affairs with women
and men throughout her lifetime.
In 1984 Ruth worked with filmmaker
Robert Burrill on her autobiographic film entitled, Illuminations:
Ruth Bernhard, Photographer. The film premièred in 1989 at the
Kabuki theater in San Francisco and on local PBS station KQED in
Bernhard was inducted into the
National Women's Caucus for Art in 1981. Bernhard was hailed by
Ansel Adams as "the greatest photographer of the nude".
Bernhard died in San Francisco at