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Ruth Bernhard: "Life gave me presents"
By Euan Kerr
Minnesota Public Radio
September 3, 2002


When people are asked to name the great photographers of the 20th century, Ruth Bernhard is unlikely to come up immediately. However she studied and worked with some of the greats: including Ansel Adams. Now 96, Ruth Bernhards work encompasses 70 years of American photography. She is particularly recognized for her studies of the female figure. Ansel Adams called her the greatest photographer of the nude. Her work is now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Within (1969). View a slideshow.
(Courtesy of the artist Copyright Ruth Bernhard, all rights reserved)

Ted Hartwell delights in telling the story of his visit to Ruth Bernhard's home in San Francisco. He's the photography curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He was in her kitchen when a tiny portrait caught his eye. Stuck on the fridge door, it was a younger Ruth, with her hand up to her cheek.

"Just a small print," he says. "Maybe 2 and a half inches square, signed by the great Edward Weston. On her refrigerator! Amazing! Amazing! It's worth a fortune!"

The whole Ruth Bernhard story seems studded with tiny treasures, and happy opportunities. Born in Germany in 1905, she left her native Berlin for New York in 1927.

To hear Ruth tell it, one day someone just gave her an 8x10 plate camera. It was an amazing gift, and she put it to good use. She got a job at Macy's working in the advertising department.

She learned from Edward Steichen whose bold style was shaping commercial photography, in America and the rest of the world. But Bernhard says she was just taking pictures with her camera. She began making portraits while continuing with her commercial work.

"I photographed children, and I photographed merchandise," she says in an interview from her California home. "I always said 'yes' to everything."

There are pictures from that time in the MIA show. There is a formal portrait of an aspiring actress taken in 1929. There is a picture of three kids from Harlem photographed in the early 1930s. Their faces are bursting with excitement at having their picture taken.

It was another quirk of fate in 1934 that led her first nude study. She was doing pictures of huge steel bowls for an industrial designer. There were a lot lying round her studio.

"I guess they were for hotels, maybe for hotel kitchens or something like that," she says. "So I had a friend who was a dancer and when I photographed those bowls she appeared on the horizon and I said, 'Why don't you get in it?' So it as all very unexpected and lots of fun."

Bernhard called the image Embryo. The pale figure of the model is crouched in the bowl against a shadowy background. The MIA's Ted Hartwell says, like many Bernhard compositions, it can be understood on many levels.

"You know we can read it literally as a figure in a bowl, a big huge salad bowl or something."

Hartwell says perhaps it's also a recognition of the birth of Bernhard's new artistic direction.

It's a very simple picture, apparently just a moment in time. But it's carefully posed. Everything exactly in it place.

"I am very deliberate," Bernhard says. "When I create a pose and there is something about it I don't like I say 'Let's change it.' So it isn't that I have a lot of pictures to choose from. I am very stingy with film, maybe?" she laughs.

In 1953 Ruth Bernhard moved to California and fell in with the artists known as the F64 group. There was Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Imogene Cunningham. They in their own way shaped photography too.

They often worked outside, but Bernhard concentrated on her work in the studio. The MIA show has several examples of she studies of shells and other objects.

But it was Ruth Bernhard's figure studies that attracted the most attention. Her most famous image came in 1964, again through serendipity. She had just got some new equipment, and had put the box out with the trash. Ted Hartwell says it was only when her model for the day arrived that Bernhard had an idea.

"So the box came up into the studio and she said, 'get in the box here now.'"

Hartwell traces the shape of the box with his finger.

"And so that's what it is; it's the Omega D-2 enlarger came in that carton and it just happens that she fits in there perfectly. And there is such elegance and repose. I mean it's like a piece of Rodin sculpture."

The picture, called In the box - horizontal now hangs at the door of the MIA photo gallery. It's a long narrow picture.

"It's idealized in a way that photography isn't known to be capable of" hartwell says. "Sculptors do it all the time that, idealized features, the perfection of that nose. I mean have you ever seen a face that perfect?"

There is another picture of the model and the box in the show. "In the box vertical" is very different

"I said 'Why don't you hold the box, hold it up with you arms?' And she and I were very good friends and she trusted me," Ruth Bernhard remembers.

It's a tall tense image. The box is on end, its flaps open. The model is kneeling, her hands hanging from the upper edge. Some critics have likened it to a crucifixion.

Ruth Bernhard says she liked to think in sculptural terms. "I was always interested in the shapes. The sexy part never occurred to me."

There are dozens of Ruth Bernard's images in the MIA gallery, the earliest from the late 1920s, all the way through to when she stopped making pictures in the 1970s.

Almost all of them were specially printed for the show. This creates a strange time warp effect. There are pictures hanging side by side, created decades apart, but sharing a remarkable similarity.

Ted Hartwell puts it down to the strength of Bernhard's artistic vision. He says the work stands out today even in a world awash in images exploiting the human form.

"I'd like to believe that Ruth's work serves as a kind of corrective to the kind of flood of banal and quite common imagery that we are beset with," he says.

Ted Hartwell is planning Ruth Bernhard's visit to the MIA in October. She will be celebrating her 97th birthday. Bernhard says she is looking forward to seeing her pictures in the gallery. For her it is just another delight in a life filled with surprises.

"I allowed life to give me presents," she says. "And everything just sort of happened the way it was supposed to happen. I did not pursue anything. It more or less pursued me."

Ruth Bernards photographs are on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through Oct. 20.

More Information
  • Minneapolis Institute of Arts