(Germany, United States of America 1905 – 18 Dec 2006)
34.6 x 26.2 cm image/sheet; 50.8 x 40.8 cm board
‘When the two images overlap – the one I have in my head and the one in my camera – then I have my exposure.’ Ruth Bernhard 1995 1
Ruth Bernhard’s emigration from Berlin to New York in 1927 on the edge of the modernist movement, together with her immersion in the avant-garde vision of her father’s graphic art, are seemingly conflicting yet synchronistic events in her life. Equally momentous was her accidental start in photography and her later chance meeting with Edward Weston that marked a turning point in her photographic career. After losing her job as a darkroom assistant she purchased a camera and some Lifesavers, which became her first still-life study. Another lucky break led her to documenting works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The celebration of the machine age in photography and Weston’s sculptural approach to the nude were obvious influences for Bernhard’s early works which instilled a formal approach to objects, patterns, shape and texture that can be seen in her nude and life studies.
Finding the caressing nature of light to be an energy that she could capture within her work to define not only form, highlight and shadow, Bernhard explored its innate connection to the spiritual essence of the object or body. She saw the body as a universal statement that could be simplified to emphasise the lines, shape and inner quality of the structure.2 The contemplative figure of ‘Dolores’ is sensuously defined by the studio lighting that transforms the body into a sculptural form, emphasised by the contrasting background and enhancing its object-ness. The delicate tonal balance gives a heightened texture to the skin that wraps itself around the bodily landscape of rises and valleys. Bernhard’s nudes owe as much to Weston’s unique vision of the nude as they do to her own dedication to exploring the body as an unopened seed pod in the transition of becoming.3
1. Glenn C W ed 1996, ‘Ruth Bernhard: known and unknown’, University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach p 7
3. Mitchell M K 1986, ‘Ruth Bernhard: the eternal body, a collection of fifty nudes’, Photography West Graphics, Carmel p 8
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
Judy Annear, American beauty: from Muybridge to Goldin, Sydney, 2003, (illus.). no catalogue numbers
Judy Annear, Discipline and Beauty - women, fashion, photography, Sydney, 1997. no catalogue numbers
Donna Brett, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'A postwar modernist vision', pg.209-225, Sydney, 2007, 220 (illus.).
Discipline and Beauty, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 28 Jun 1997–17 Aug 1997
American Beauty: from Muybridge to Goldin, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 05 Jun 2003–27 Jul 2003