About the Photographer
German, b. 1905
Ruth Bernhard is perhaps best known for her black-and-white view camera pictures of nudes, still lifes, and natural forms, notably seashells and found objects. She is also remembered as a pioneering woman in photography, though Bernhard herself lays no claim to such titles. Rather, the photographer prefers to think of her students as her legacy and of herself as a gardener of young minds. She believes in "the celebration of the commonplace," and her delight in the world is as much a trademark of her work as her painstaking lighting. The 1945 photograph Skull and Rosary demonstrates how her mastery of light is used to support and develop her philosophic concerns. In May of 1989 Bernhard said of the piece, "I have always had a deep awareness of the perfection of the skull as the protective cavity for the brain – the vessel of our universal intelligence. Unexpectedly, in my studio one night, I knew I had to make this image. It was impulsive, inevitable! Life and Death are here represented by the deer skull and the rosary."
A few years later she recalled her working method and the circumstances of this picture in greater detail. In a letter to The Museum of Contemporary Photography dated September 15, 1992, Bernhard wrote: "I photographed 'Skull and Bones' with a 4×5 view camera. I was in a totally dark room at night with one light above the skull which was hanging on a nail by my door at eye level. The background was shinny silver paper. The white of the skull was reflected only at the edges as there was no other light in the room. The rosary had been hanging on the skull long before I had decided to photograph it. The symbolism is for the viewer to decide. I always photograph entirely by intuition. The image is one of my favorite photographs. Film and paper information are no longer available in my brain."
Born on October 14, 1905 in Berlin, Ruth Bernhard was the daughter of the noted and versatile artisce Lucien Bernhard, often referred to as the "father of the German poster." She came to the U.S. in 1927, where she worked as a photographer's assistant at the magazine The Delineator. She began making her own photographs around 1929. Bernhard studied at the Academy of Art in her native town and was influenced by Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Dorothea Lange. In fact, it was her 1935 meeting with Weston that convinced her that she could use photography to make art. From 1968 to 1976, she was an instructor in creative photography at the University of California, San Francisco and has taught numerous seminars and workshops throughout the United States since then. A member of Friends of Photography, she was granted a Certificate of Honor by the city of San Francisco in 1978 and a Dorothea Lange Award by California's Oakland Art Museum in 1975. Her work has been widely exhibited and has appeared in magazines including Vanity Fair and Architectural Forum. Her photographs are in the collections of such institutions as the International Museum of Photography George Eastman House, Rochester, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern art, New York; Oakland Museum of Art, California; and Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.