Ruth Bernhard

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Ruth Bernhard
Born(1905-10-14)October 14, 1905
DiedDecember 18, 2006(2006-12-18) (aged 101)
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Nationality (legal)American and German

Ruth Bernhard (October 14,[citation needed] 1905 – December 18, 2006) was a German-born American photographer.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Bernhard was born in Berlin to Lucian Bernhard and Gertrude Hoffmann. Lucian Bernhard was known for his poster and typeface design, many of which bear his name and are still in use. Bernhard's parents divorced when she was 2 years old and she only met her mother twice after the divorce.[2] She was raised by two schoolteacher sisters and their mother.[3] Bernhard's father Lucian was a major proponent of Ruth's work, and advised her frequently.[4]

Bernhard studied art history and typography at the Berlin Academy of Art from 1925 to 1927 [5] before moving to New York City to join her father.[6] She began teaching at the University of California in 1958, while also giving lectures, classes and workshops all over the United States.[7]

Photography career[edit]

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. Using the severance pay, Bernhard bought her own camera equipment.[8] 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. Her first realization that she was attracted to other women occurred on New Year's Eve 1928 when she met the painter Patti Light.[9] She wrote about her "bisexual escapades" in her memoir.[10] In 1934 Bernhard began photographing women in the nude.[11] It would be this art form for which she would eventually become best known.[12] In 1935, she chanced to meet Edward Weston on the beach in Santa Monica.[13] 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.

Bernhard was so inspired by Weston's work that, after meeting him in 1935, she moved to California (where he lived). In 1939, Bernhard moved back to New York for eight years, during which time she met photographer Alfred Stieglitz.[14]

Bernhard was inspired by the small things in her life. In an interview from 1999 with Photographers Forum, Ruth states," I’m most interested in—the little things that nobody observes, that nobody thinks are of any value".[15] In the same interview she stated that,"Everything is universal" and that she was "very much aware of that".[15] This idea of minimalism drove her passion for photography.

In 1934 Ruth received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to photograph works for the Machine Art exhibition catalog.[16][17] Her father Lucian Bernhard set up the meeting with MoMA for her. [citation needed]

Life on the West Coast[edit]

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 in Carmel, California. Here, 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[12] where she became a colleague of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Minor White, and Wynn Bullock.

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.[18] 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.[12]

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 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.[19]

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.

In 1967, Bernhard began a teaching career. This same year, 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.[20]

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 1991.

Bernhard was inducted into the Women's Caucus for Art in 1981. Bernhard was hailed by Ansel Adams as "the greatest photographer of the nude".[21]

Bernhard died in San Francisco at age 101.[1]

Publications by Bernhard[edit]

  • Bernhard, Ruth. Collecting Light: The Photographs of Ruth Bernhard. Edited by James Alinder. Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1979
  • Bernhard, Ruth. Gift of the Commonplace. Carmel Valley, Calif.: Woodrose Publications / Center for Photographic Art, 1996. ISBN 0-9630393-5-0
  • Bernhard, Ruth. The Eternal Body: A Collection of Fifty Nudes. Carmel, Calif.: Photography West Graphics, 1986. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1994. Essay by Margaretta K. Mitchell. ISBN 0-8118-0801-7 ISBN 0-8118-0826-2
  • Van, Melvin, and Ruth Bernhard. The Big Heart. San Francisco: Fearon, 1957.
  • Mitchell, Margaretta K., and Ruth Bernhard. Ruth Bernhard: Between Art and Life. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. Print.


  • 1976 Dorothea Lange Award by the Oakland Museum[9]
  • 1987 Distinguished Career in Photography Award. Society of Photographic education. Midwest Regional Conference, Chicago, Illinois November 8, 1987[9]
  • 1990 Presidential Citation for Outstanding Service to Utah State University. Logan, Utah, October 25, 1990[9]
  • 1994 Cyril Magnin Award for Distinguished Service in Photography. Presented by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce[9]
  • 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award. Women's Caucus for Art. California Regional Chapter, Presented at Mills College, Oakland, March 30, 1996[9]
  • 1997 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. The Academy of Art, San Francisco, June 1, 1997[9]
  • 2003 Lucie Awards for achievement in fine art[22]

Solo exhibitions[edit]

  • 1936: Jake Zeitlin Gallery, Los Angeles[23]
  • 1936: Pacific Institute of Music and Art, Los Angeles, Eye Behind the Camera[24]
  • 1938: P.M. Gallery, New York[23]
  • 1956: Institute for Cultural Relations, Mexico City[24]
  • 1986: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art The Eternal Body[24]
  • 2014: Peter Fetterman Gallery The Eternal Nude[25]


Bernhard's work is held in the following permanent collections:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sabin Russell, "Ruth Bernhard: Photographer of nudes and still lifes" (obituary), San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 2006.
  2. ^ Mitchell, Margaretta K (1986). Ruth Bernhard: the eternal body : a collection of fifty nudes. San Francisco (Calif.): Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811808262. OCLC 468438726.
  3. ^ Ruth Bernhard : the collection of Ginny Williams. Bernhard, Ruth., Williams, Ginny., Bunnell, Peter C., Denver Art Museum., Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Tallgrass Press. 1993. ISBN 1881138046. OCLC 29463798.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. ^ Corinne, Tee A. "Bernhard, Ruth".
  5. ^ More fully, the Academie der Mahler-, Bildhauer- und Architectur-Kunst, the precursor of both the Berlin University of the Arts and the Akademie der Künste. The dates are from Rosenblum, p. 294.
  6. ^ "Ruth Bernhard at Historic Camera – History Librarium". Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  7. ^ Recollections : ten women of photography. Abbott, Berenice, 1898–1991., Mitchell, Margaretta. Viking Press. 1979. ISBN 0670590789.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. ^ Move, working for Steiner, purchase of equipment: Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard"; Rosenblum, p. 294
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Margaretta, Mitchell (2000). Ruth Bernhard : between art & life. Bernhard, Ruth. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. ISBN 0811821919. OCLC 45302284.
  10. ^ An Eye For Collecting, Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call, December 13, 2008
  11. ^ Conrad, Donna (2000), "A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard", PhotoVision Magazine, vol. 1, no. 3
  12. ^ a b c Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard".
  13. ^ Chance meeting with Weston: Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard."
  14. ^ "Ruth Bernhard". International Center of Photography. March 2, 2016. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  15. ^ a b 20th century photographers: interviews on the craft, purpose, and the passion of photography. Burlington, MA : Focal Press. 2015. ISBN 9781317554042.
  16. ^ Contemporary photographers. Marix Evans, Martin., Hopkinson, Amanda, 1948–, Baskakov, Andreĭ. (3rd ed.). New York: St. James Press. 1995. ISBN 1-55862-190-3. OCLC 31010815.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  17. ^ Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) (1934). Machine art. Museum of Modern Art. OCLC 9339655.
  18. ^ Work on shells: Rosenblum, p. 294.
  19. ^ "Female Pioneers of Photography. I guess unseen can be applied here". Anatomy Films. October 5, 2018. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  20. ^ Apogee mini-review of Between Art and Life; Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard."
  21. ^ Quoted by Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard."
  22. ^ "Ruth Bernhard 2003 honoree: achievement in fine art". Lucie Awards. Retrieved December 15, 2018.
  23. ^ a b Contemporary photographers. Walsh, George, Held, Michael, Naylor, Colin. New York. 1982. ISBN 0312167911. OCLC 8283869.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  24. ^ a b c North American women artists of the twentieth century : a biographical dictionary. Heller, Jules., Heller, Nancy G. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1995. ISBN 0824060490. OCLC 31865530.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  25. ^ "Ruth Bernhard – Exhibitions – Peter Fetterman". Retrieved March 31, 2017.
  26. ^ "Indianapolis Museum of Art Collection Search". Retrieved June 30, 2018.
  27. ^ "Collection (Getty Museum)". The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. Retrieved June 30, 2018.
  28. ^ "Museum of Contemporary Photography". Retrieved March 4, 2024.
  29. ^ "Permanent Collection". Museum of Photographic Arts at the San Diego Museum of Art (MOPA@SDMA). Retrieved March 4, 2024.
  30. ^ "Portland Art Museum | Online Collections". Retrieved June 30, 2018.
  31. ^ "San Jose Museum of Art: Collection – Artists – Ruth Bernhard". San Jose Museum of Art. Archived from the original on March 5, 2020. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  32. ^ "Artist:%22Ruth%20Bernhard%22 | Minneapolis Institute of Art".
  33. ^ "Ruth Bernhard". International Photography Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 20, 2020.

General references[edit]

  • Ruth Bernhard Minnesota Public Radio (audio)
  • Samples of Bernhard's works
  • Lavender, Lisa Ann. "Ruth Bernhard." In The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, ed. Robin Lenman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-866271-8
  • Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. New York: Abbeville, 1994. ISBN 1-55859-761-1
  • Bernhard, Ruth, and Margaretta K. Mitchell. Ruth Bernhard: Between Art and Life. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2000. ISBN 0-8118-2191-9
  • Corinne, Tee A. "Ruth Bernhard." In An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2002.
  • "Ruth Bernhard" at Women in Photography: an unsigned article, with photographs by Bernhard
  • Ruth Bernhard, Joe Folberg of meeting Bernhard
  • Primary documents regarding her life and career are housed at Princeton University's Special Collections. An inventory of their holding can be found in this finding aid.