Ruth Bernhard’s classical black-and-white photographs of the female nude have earned her a place of distinction among 20th-century photographers and in the history of art. Her images celebrate the grace, sensuality, and refinement of the female form revitalizing a classical standard of beauty, one based on an appreciation of women’s bodies. Bernhard was born in Berlin in 1905 and moved to New York City in 1927. In the 1940s she became part of the influential Group f/64, joining Modernist West Coast photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange who all took a purist approach to their subjects. In particular, Edward Weston’s compositionally simple female nude studies would have the greatest influence on Bernhard’s work and showed her what was possible through photography. While Weston used sunlight in natural settings to illuminate his nudes, Bernhard would photograph almost exclusively in the studio. She was known to take a single picture from one specific angle after meticulously setting up a composition, sometimes over many days. Bernhard used her lighting in her studio to smooth the skin in order to achieve an ideal female form. The model would be transformed by Bernhard’s light into a kind of sculptural figure emphasizing abstract shape and form, but also classic sculpture. Relating her intentions, she said:
“In photographing the nude, it is my aim to transform the complexities of the figure into harmonies of simplified form; illuminating the innate life force and spirit as well as the underlying remarkable bone structure. The endless variety of nature’s designs and shapes amaze and thrill me.”
The 1952 photograph “Classical Torso” exemplifies her keen awareness of lighting, composition, and balance, also showing her awareness and interest in the canon of Western sculpture. In the image, a boldly crouching subject lowers one leg, exposing her stomach and breast, while wrapping her right arm across her body. “Classic Torso” seems a successor of the classic representation of the goddess Aphrodite crouching, with one leg lowered, a frequently seen ancient motif. Bernhard’s reference to classical form was a movement toward recreating the Greek ideal, but as an ideal for the female body through the medium of photography. Bernhard’s angle, lighting, and harmonious arrangement of forms make the figure complete within the frame even though it lacks a face. As she said, “To keep the image timeless, I deliberately minimize the importance of the face, at times eliminating it altogether, this I feel makes the universality of the splendid more emphatic.” Bernhard’s development of successfully visualizing the female form would eventually lead Ansel Adams to say she was “the greatest photographer of the nude.” Today, her timeless photographs exemplified by “Classic Torso” continue to be appreciated for their sensual, yet elegant take on classic feminine beauty.