Vintage gelatin silver print, 1936; signed in pencil, “Ruth Bernhard”, 1936
114E Agfa paper, 10 1/2 x 13 inches mounted on grey-painted canvas board, 16 x 20 inches
Ruth Bernhard (American 1905-2006)
Ruth Bernhard first struck at the chord of professional photography when she took a job as a darkroom assistant for the New York magazine The Delineator, age 24, working under the supervision of Ralph Steiner. She soon left, and with her severance pay bought an 8 x 10 viewfinder camera to begin taking portraits of her father’s friends—an interesting circle of designers and artisans. From this time on she sustained herself as a freelance photographer.
In 1935 Ruth met Edward Weston on a beach in Santa Monica, a meeting that transformed and elevated her entire perception of photography. Soon thereafter, she moved to the West Coast to study with him in Carmel. Earning a living in Carmel proved difficult, so she packed her bags for Hollywood to open her own studio. Celebrities brought their children to have portraits—many posing with beloved dolls. In 1953, she moved to San Francisco, remaining there until her death in 2006.
Simple subjects always charmed her—from children’s dolls to found shells on the beach shore, although she was herself complex, a complexity exhibited in her relationships with women at a time when same sex partners could not have married. Living in Manhattan Bernhard was heavily involved in the lesbian sub-culture of the artistic community, befriending photographer Bernice Abbott (see abbott’s famed “Penn Station” print hanging nearby) and her lover, critic Elizabeth McCausland. By 1934 Bernhard was almost exclusively photographing women in the nude, an art form for which she would eventually become best known.