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Ruth Bernhard (American, 1905-2006)
Birth Place: Berlin (Berlin state, Germany)
Ruth Bernhard was born in Berlin, Germany on October 14, 1905. She would go on to have a career spanning seven decades, encompassing most of the 20th century of American photography, and become an integral part of both defining modern studio photography and 20th-century contemporary photography. Her ability to capture shadow and form in her nudes makes her work still seem vital, fresh, and daring -- even viewed three quarters of a century later.
Bernhard was born in Germany, where she studied at the Berlin Academy of Art from 1925-1927. Bernhard’s father, Lucian Bernhard was an iconic artist in his own right, focusing on graphic and typeface design. He would serve as both her greatest advocate and advisor for most of their lives. In 1927, after finishing school, Bernhard moved with her father to New York City where she bought her first camera.
By the late 1920s, Bernhard was heavily involved in the lesbian sub-culture of Manhattan, a source of inspiration that would inspire decades of future work. It was during this time that she met fellow photographers and friends Berenice Abbot and Edward Weston, both of who would encourage Bernhard to find her own photographic voice. In 1934, Bernhard began photographing women in the nude, the work with which she would become known to the rest of the world.
Bernhard’s nudes are a study in subtlety, with a fine and elegant contrast between shadow and radiant light. It was this radiance that pulled at Bernhard’s soul. Her oft-quoted line perhaps best sums up her artistic vision, “The ground we walk on,” Bernhard said, “the plants and creatures, the clouds above constantly dissolving into new formations -- each a gift of nature possessing its own radiant energy, bound together by cosmic harmony."
It was this search for radiance that took Bernhard from New York and sent her searching to California where she lived and worked for four years. When she eventually came back to New York, it was to universal artistic acclaim, producing the photography for the first catalog published by the Museum of Modern Art. Her exhibition, The Art of the Machine (1940) showed the power of her still life photography. “I’m most interested in the little things that nobody observes,” said Bernhard in a career retrospective.
In 1954 she moved back to San Francisco, CA, where she worked with other luminaries like Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, and Wynn Bullock. It was during this time that she produced some of her most iconic photography, including Two Forms (1962), featuring a real-life interracial lesbian couple. Her work pushed the boundaries of where art could go, though she never sacrificed technique to get there. Her use of formal disciplines like composition, light, and shadow continued to inspire and elicit visceral emotion, no matter the subject.
In the 1980s she published her first book, The Eternal Body (1986), despite the fact that she had been turned away by multiple publishers. It would go on to be an artistic and commercial success. She taught and lectured through the end of her life and continued to publish her work, eventually culminating in the autobiographical documentary, Illuminations: Ruth Bernhard, Photographer (1989). She died in San Francisco on December 18, 2006, leaving a legacy of ground-breaking art that never compromised, always provoked, and above all else showed an eye keen to beauty and the transcendental moments of the human experience.
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