A True Icon of Modernist Photography

Ruth Bernhard, the German-American photographer whose career spanned almost 7 decades is considered a true icon of modernist photography. She has influenced and inspired many with her mastery in use of light, and combining graphic elegance with sensual subject matters. Born in 1905 in Berlin, she studied Art History and Typography at the Berlin Academy of Art for two years before moving to New York City in 1927. During the late 20s, Bernhard became involved with the artistic community in Manhattan, making friends with the likes of Berenice Abbott. She began photographing female nudes in 1934, which would later become a lifelong study, and for which she is best known for today.

Moving to the West Coast

A chance encounter with Edward Weston in 1935 was somewhat a turning point for Bernhard, where Weston convinced her to move to California. From then on, Weston became a long time mentor for Bernhard, where she developed her artistic style alongside Weston while continuing freelance photography. During the 40s, Bernhard became a part of f/64, a group that consisted of the modernist West Coast photographers, including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Wynn Bullock and Imogen Cunningham. Such names all took a purist approach to their subjects where their work was “characterized by photographic clarity and detailed precision”, elements that are clearly evident in Bernhard’s body work as well. Her radiant still life studies and nude forms were not merely works of art, but were reflections of her passionate search for the universal connections of all things in life.

Bernhard’s perception of photography presented itself on a highly intellectual and philosophical level, treating each of her subjects to be worthy of detailed observation.

Ruth Bernhard, Draped Torso with Hands
Ruth Bernhard, Draped Torso With Hands, 1962, printed 1990
Silver Gelatin Photograph

Draped Torso With Hands

Once named as the “finest photographer of the nude” by Ansel Adams, some of Ruth Bernhard’s best known photographs are of the female nude. Draped Torso With Hands, executed in 1962, presents a delicate balance between “compositional precision and evocative sensuality.” The picture shows a centrally positioned nude female model photographed from the back, with her torso partially draped with fabric. Her wrapped arms reveal her two hands from the sides of her waist, combining elements of surrealism with the formalist tenets of modernist photography.


Draped Torso With Hands is also a great example of how the idea of minimalist drives Bernhard’s passion for the medium. Her minimal, yet meticulous orchestration of her subjects allowed Bernhard to focus on composition, light and form. She was known to take a single picture from one specific angle after setting up the subject and composition, which sometimes took days.

“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow,’ said Bernhard ‘is to isolate, simplify, and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity. To indicate the idea of proportion, and reveal sculptural mass and the dominating spirit, is my goal.”

The picture, in this case, seems to be almost illuminated from within, where even the simplest lines of the human form appear complex, yet harmonious, taking on a sculptural quality.

The Distinction between Sensual and Sexual

Bernhard’s photograph of the Draped Torso With Hands is also part of The Eternal Body, her series of fifty female nudes, which masterfully present the distinction between sensual and sexual.

“I wanted to show the female form as filled with grace”

says Bernhard, whose study of the body is a vision of beauty and nobility. The play of light and skin in Draped Torso With Hands, for example, is a fine example of a classically reserved yet equally sensual photograph. The soft lighting, combined with the symmetrical positioning of the model presents the viewer the anatomy of the female figure reminiscent of a Greek sculpture. When commenting on her interest in studying the female form, Bernhard says,

“I want all my photographs to be sensuous, whether they are of glasses, or a pot, or a nude person, because I want them to be pleasing and exciting to the eye. And from the very beginning of my photography, I found symmetry and beauty in the human form”

The Creative Process

When asked about her creative process, Bernhard replies in a way as romantic as the photograph appears saying;

“I like to see the things the way my eyes see them and not the way the lens sees it. Now, the Nikon for instance, is a very sharp camera, and if I were to photograph with a Nikon it would show every little thing that my eyes would never notice, and I am not interested in that. So I photograph things tenderly, as if I had tears in my eyes, with a little bit of softness, you see?”

A Crucial Name in the History of 20th Century Photography

With a philosophical and purist approach to her photographic practice, Ruth Bernhard is a crucial name in the history of 20th century photography. Her studies of the female form, which came years before the popularity of feminist photographs in the 1970s, continue to influence and inspire generations of artists and viewers. Her dramatically lit nude studies expressed interest in abstract shape and form, as well as grace and timeless, universal beauty. Having been exhibited in many major institutions throughout her lifetime, Bernhard’s work appears in the collections of notable museums such as San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and The Victoria and Albert Museum.