Bernhard, Ruth (b. 1905)

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Bernhard, Ruth (b. 1905)

German-born photographer, known for nudes, still lifes and portraits, as well as advertising and fashion work. Born in Berlin, Germany, on October 14, 1905; daughter of Lucien Bernhard (graphic and typeface designer); parents divorced when she was an infant and she was raised by school teachers Helene and Katarina Lotz; attended boarding school, Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin, 1927; became U.S. citizen, 1935.

Following her parents' divorce, Ruth Bernhard was put into the care of sisters Helene and Katarina Lotz when she was an infant, so that her father could pursue his blossoming career in advertising. As teachers, the two sisters provided Bernhard with an environment in which her natural curiosity flourished. "They took her on nature walks, to the meadows, to the seashore," writes Charlotte Painter ; "they indulged her enjoyment in collecting things, as if they knew she had eyes that especially needed to linger upon objects, as if they understood then what she had realized fully only in maturity: that her enjoyment of life began with her eyes." At 11, Bernhard was placed in boarding school and later attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.

Emigrating from Germany in 1927 to join her father in New York City, Bernhard landed her first job with Delineator magazine (work she found impersonal) but was fired for being "unenthusiastic." Using her severance pay to buy photographic equipment, she began to freelance in fashion and advertising, working for friends of her father's and picking up contracts with The New York Times and Advertising Art, as well Macy's and Sloane's department stores. In 1934, she became the photographer for Machine Age, a publication of the Museum of Modern Art.

By her own admission, Bernhard did not take her work seriously until a chance meeting with Edward Weston in 1935. She was so impressed with his work that she moved to Santa Monica, California, with plans to study with him. Finding that he had moved to Carmel, she took up her freelance career in Los Angeles.

Primarily photographing still lifes and female nudes, Bernhard had a fascination with shells that led to a collaboration with conchologist Jean Schwengel during the 1940s. In 1953, she moved to San Francisco, where she lived and worked out of a small Victorian house.

"A powerful feeling would come over her," writes Painter, "telling her that she must capture the image that had caught her imagination. Often she would work for days to align the photograph with the spirit of that original impulse. It might be a seashell or a crushed teapot, a doll's head or a nude, but, whatever the subject, the image would come fully into her mind first, before it could appear on film and paper."

Bernard published two portfolios of prints, The Gift of the Commonplace and The Eternal Body, as well as a monograph of her work Collecting Light. She has been exhibited in various galleries, and in 1971, received the Dorothea Lange award at the Oakland Museum, in Oakland, California. Bernhard remained open to experience throughout her life. She celebrated her 80th birthday by climbing Mount Fuji in Japan.


Painter, Charlotte. Gifts of Age. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville Press, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts