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Ruth Bernhard (October 14, 1905 – December 18, 2006) was an American photographer.

Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard
Born October 14, 1905(1905-10-14)
Berlin, Germany
Died December 18, 2006 (aged 101)
San Francisco, California
Nationality American
Occupation Photographer


Early life

Bernhard was born in Berlin and studied at the Berlin Academy of Art from 1925–27.[1] Bernhard's father, Lucian Bernhard, was known for his poster and typeface design.

Photography career

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.[2] In 1935, she chanced to meet Edward Weston on the beach in Santa Monica.[3] 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 before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible—an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography.[citation needed]

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 Bernice Abbott and her lover, critic Elizabeth McCausland. She wrote about her "bisexual escapdes" in her memoir.[4] In 1934 Bernhard began photographing women in the nude.[5] It would be this art form for which she would eventually become best known.[6]

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.[citation needed]

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.[7]

Most of Bernhard's work is studio-based, ranging from simple still lives to complex nudes. In the 1940s she worked with the conchologist Jean Schwengel.[8] She works almost exclusively in black and white, though there are rumours that she has 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.[9]

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 1960s Bernhard started to work with Joe Folberg who owned Vision Gallery in San Francisco. Folberg single-handedly[citation needed] introduced the idea of limited edition photography prints to help photographers get a fair return and to build value into their work. Bernhard and Folberg worked together until Folberg's death, when 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.[10]

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.[11]

In 1984 Ruth worked with filmmaker Robert Burrill on her autobiographic film entitled, Illumination: Ruth Bernhard, Photographer. The film premièred in 1988 at the Kabuki theater in San Francisco and on local PBS station KQED in 1990.

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".[12]

Bernhard died in San Francisco at age 101.[13]


  • Her standard of printing was so much higher than anything I’d come across in England. She had complete technical skill, but it was her total disregard for accepted norms of printing that opened my eyes. She used the negative as absolute raw material and would do anything she wanted with it. She just refused to believe that because she had a particular negative, then this is what the print should look like. She’d print until it looked like what she wanted it to look like. -Michael Kenna[14]
  • "Remember God likes us best when we are flying by the seats of our pants," usually said at the close of telephone conversations with close friends.[citation needed]
  • "I never question what to do, it tells me what to do. The photographs make themselves with my help."[15]
  • "If you can't make the image bigger or more important than what you see, then don't push the button.”[citation needed]
  • "Never ever say the word shoot when you are taking a picture with a camera because a camera is not a violent weapon."[citation needed]
  • "Now, If you say shoot one more time, I will have to make you give me a quarter for the American Indian College Fund."[citation needed]
  • “The ground we walk on, the plants and creatures, the clouds above constantly dissolving into new formations - each gift of nature possessing its own radiant energy, bound together by cosmic harmony.”[citation needed]
  • "If I have chosen the female form in particular, it is because beauty has been debased and exploited in our sensual twentieth century. We seem to have a need to turn innocent nature into evil ugliness by the twist of the mind. Woman has been the target 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 - the reason for my work which you see here."[citation needed]
  • "You would make me the happiest person in all the world if you would do this one little thing for me," always said with a twinkle in her eye when she needed something.[citation needed]

Books of works by Bernhard

  • 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.


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Move, working for Steiner, purchase of equipment: Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard"; Rosenblum, p. 294
  3. ^ Chance meeting with Weston: Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard."
  4. ^ An Eye For Collecting, Geoff Gehman, The Morning Call, December 13, 2008
  5. ^ Conrad, Donna; PhotoVision (2000), "A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard", Vol. 1 No. 3, 
  6. ^ Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard".
  7. ^ Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard".
  8. ^ Work on shells: Rosenblum, p. 294.
  9. ^ Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard".
  10. ^ See this page.
  11. ^ Apogee mini-review of Between Art and Life; Corinne, "Ruth Bernhard."
  12. ^ Quoted by Lavender, "Ruth Bernhard."
  13. ^ Sabin Russell, "Ruth Bernhard: Photographer of nudes and still lifes" (obituary), San Francisco Chronicle, December 19, 2006.
  14. ^ Michael Kenna
  15. ^ From "The Quote Garden", which does not provide a source.[citation needed]


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