Photography Articles and Techniques
A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard
Interview by Donna Conrad
From Vol. 1 No. 3

RB: I’m now 95 and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be decorating this planet with my presence, but I couldn’t ask for anything more. I don’t know how I arrived at this outstanding place in my life, but I think that maybe my life is what it is because I’m the type of person that flies into any situation unexpectantly; like the first nude I photographed, Embryo, in 1934.
The reason I photographed my first nude was not because I planned it, or was influenced by what other photographers were doing, it was because I was working on a catalog for The Museum of Modern Art called Machine Art, and one of the objects to be photographed was a stainless steel bowl, maybe 40-inches in diameter, or larger, that is used in big hotels.
A friend of mine, who was a real free spirit and thought nothing of taking her clothes off, was with me. Instinctively I saw the bowl with her curled inside like an embryo. So I said, “Why don’t you get in it?” And that was the first nude I ever did. And it was no surprise to her or to me because I always followed my intuition.

DC: Even though a large body of your work is still lifes, you are mostly known for your work with the nude.
RB: I have done still lifes all my life, but when I started to do nudes, it seems that was more unusual, and people tend to pay attention to the naked body, don’t they?
DC: Why do you think that is so?
RB: (laughs) Well, we are really a little shy. We haven’t yet learned to accept the body without clothes on. And of course there has been a lot of photography that made the body very erotic and so attracted that kind of attention.
But I always look at the human body exactly like I would any other living creature. So I never had the feeling about the nude that it was somehow not acceptable. I never gave a thought that photographing the nude was any different from doing still lifes.
But you see, I never have made a nude where there is a facial expression. When the model and the photographer look at each other, it’s very different than seeing a shape that is strong all on it own, without a facial expression. So I don’t have any facial expressions. And if the face is showing, it has to have an inward look, not an outward look. You cannot exchange glances with another person without making it a personal exchange. When you close your eyes and you seem to be alone, that is how I like to have my models in my photographs.
DC: You have mentioned that you like Jock Sturges’ work and yet his models are almost always looking directly at the viewer.
RB: Yes, I like his work. I think his nudes are absolutely innocent because the expression of the model is never seductive. I don’t see anything wrong with people looking at each other if the pose is not seductive, if it is not supposed to be sexy. If the model is enjoying her nudity and she is relaxed about it, there should be nothing in that picture that is in any way offensive. I see no reason why a nude should be any different from a still life or a portrait. You know Edward Weston’s nudes never looked at any time sexy.
And it’s very easy to turn a nude picture into a sexy picture. You can have an entirely clothed person looking terribly sexy and an entirely nude person who looks boring. Just because the body is nude does not make it exciting. So I don’t think nudity is really the question. The question is the respect and the perception of wonderful forms going well with each other; to feel that very mysterious kind of difference. Now I have never done a nude that I thought was sexy. If anybody sees sexy in it, it’s in their mind. It was not in mine.
DC: But your images are sensual in nature.
RB: Oh definitely, definitely! 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. I don’t know if I have always succeeded, but I’m always looking at how to put the object into the space I have chosen in order to show beauty and harmony. If it doesn’t look pleasing to me then I have failed. I’m not just mixing objects. I’m looking at objects in this most satisfying, beautiful space, in relationship to whatever else is in the space; even if what else is there is only blank space.
And it is always very exciting to me, everything I see; that’s why I’m a photographer. When I walk down the street and see the way two houses relate to each other, I stop and I look because I’m so excited. I could never ignore that part of life. And it doesn’t make any difference what the subject is. The subject in relationship to whatever it is, has to be harmonious from my eyes.
I think there is the same something about the nude. The photographer’s thinking is absolutely essential in how the photograph is going to come out. So when I photograph a cat or a dog or a nude, I see that absolute harmony and innocence and beauty. But of course, the final impression of what I have seen is always in the eyes of the beholder.
DC: To some people anything that involves the nude is vulgar.
RB: Yes, for them everything will be a dirty picture. And that means the Lord made a terrible mistake that we were born nude. I started photographing the nude very early, never gave it another thought. In fact it was a surprise to me when people said there is something about it that was wrong. But I never had that feeling at any time. When I choose a body to photograph I choose one that I can photograph to be a work of art
I think this country is very confused between the human body and sex. You know, in Europe little girls and boys go to the beach naked; here little girls wear two-piece bathing suits over their no bosoms. I believe many people have this problem with the nude body because when we are children we are taught that we must somehow always be clothed and we grow up to think that to be naked is somehow not decent.
And yet, on television and in movies, everything about the body and sex is right out in the open, and this gives the wrong message. We are taught by our parents that there is something very dirty about our bodies, and then we are taught from the movies that the only time our bodies can be exposed has to be related to sex. So naturally when some people see a nude photograph they can only think of it in a sexual way; they can’t help themselves.
I remember a prominent man who objected to one of my photographs — one of my favorite human shapes. To him, it was arousing, but I have no control over who is aroused. You see, if no clothes is indecent to someone, they will always see indecency in any picture with no clothes on. So I think the problem has to do with our upbringing and with our respect for life.
DC: Even Edward Weston’s still lifes were labeled erotic in nature.
RB: Well of course they were. And I think there are very many highly exciting still lifes. But it depends on who is looking. There is no picture that is not influenced by the on-looker. One person can look at it as pornography and the other as a work of art. The distinction has very little to do with the picture in front of us, it is in the mind of the viewer.
DC: Harmony and beauty are the trademarks of your images. How do you feel about photographers who concentrate on the aberrant and/or disharmonious aspects of life?
RB: I am so offended by some of it that I’ve tried to not even recognize it. I think photographs are really a reflection of the photographer. A photographer’s work is like handwriting. I’m sorry for people who have to put the worst part of themselves in public view. It must be very difficult for people to be aware of doing that because, as artists they will work until their mind and eye are satisfied. And I see by their art that there is a lot of cruelty in many artists.
But I think to be a human being is not easy, especially to be a human being that you can admire in yourself. I think as artists, we have no way of disguising who we are when we are photographing. I think we are coming through loud and clear. Like Diane Arbus must have been a very, very hurt woman. And the hurt comes through in her work. And Joel Peter-Witkin must have been a very difficult child and that comes through in his work. And Mapplethorpe, who has such lovely images of everything except some of his nudes. I think he must have been very cruel in some part of himself, could not find love and respect in himself, in order to make those particular nudes. And on the opposite side you can see the love and harmony and respect for life in Edward Weston, and in many photographers like Michael Kenna. You have never seen a single photograph of Kenna’s that is not harmonious. He could not open the shutter for something that wasn’t harmonious.
DC: Do think there is a place for both harmony and disharmony in art?
RB: I think that art is the expression of the human spirit, and if the human spirit being expressed is Joel Peter-Witkins’, by all means I want to see it. It might offend me. It might scare me. But, I sense that’s what the man has to do. But if it’s not honest, I don’t want him to do it. But if cruelty and abnormality is honestly his, by all means I want to see it.
DC: Photographer Steve Anchell was quoted as saying,“No matter whether it is pleasing or disturbing, as long as there is some type of emotional response from the viewer the artist has been successful.”
RB: Absolutely. I agree with that. That there are artists who have the courage to show us things that we are not willing to look at on our own, is what is needed. There are very effective artists that make us look. And so I agree that that is what an artist has to do; and that artists do not always have to show beauty in the sentimental sense, but they must be powerful in their statements, yes! Honest, yes! And absolutely true to themselves, yes!
And of course this is why some artist’s work has survived for centuries and centuries; because they are taking what is inside and showing us all what they see, how they see, what we should see. And of course it also has to do with how sensitive the audience is that the artist has been able to find. Because there may be artists who have never had a chance to be exposed to people who might have been responsive; depending on where their work was visible.
But to censor work is not what I want. Art has to be in front of people so they have a chance to be responsive. That’s why galleries are so important, because people can go and see what is important. And they go and they see work that they may not have chosen to see and then it means something to them and they are moved. Sometimes against their will, because they don’t want to see things that they may have denied. So I think that art, in all its forms, is a very, very important expression of the human spirit.
I feel it is important for new artists to hear that there is a need for all art. That it is not necessary for one to “like” what they see, but there is a need for it to be shown. But of course the art has to come from the gut of the person for it to be effective.
I believe, like the Buddhist, that life is not only beauty, but pain and suffering and that the artist is one of the ones to show all sides of our lives.
DC: In 1986 you were quoted as saying “I am ashamed to be a human being.” Is that still true?
RB: Yes. That’s a true statement. I continue to be embarrassed. I think we are behaving terribly. And I would like all of your readers to know that I am ashamed to be a human being; and that we could be different. You know the human race can write poetry and music and create such beauty and still behave in such horrible ways. And I am not speaking of only of the killing and wars and atrocities we hear about; each day in each interaction with each other I find that we often treat each other very poorly; without care. So each of us, individually, has to take responsibility for how the human race is behaving.
I think the world has gotten too crowded and too small. I think it is very bad for us to be able to know in a second, that something horrible, someone killing someone, happened in another part of the world. I think the immediacy makes some people think that they can be famous, too, by doing some of these horrible things and that everyone in the world will know within a second or two.
There are a few small places where people don’t watch television or read the newspapers; where they are living simply, lovingly, and creating beauty and art and raising children that also create instead of watch television for hours each day. I think anybody who has been able to escape this constant barrage of information is very fortunate.
And maybe you don’t have to live in the country to be free from this; maybe you can do it in a big city. But it is harder because you are tempted to watch life instead of live it. Either you see these horrible things that we do to each other, and it makes you want to not go out of your house, or you sit and watch “make believe” people in movies and on television instead of creating a life for yourself.
With all that I see we are doing, I am sorry to say that I am pessimistic about the human race being able to survive long enough to learn to live together and to love each other.
DC: Even though you feel this way you still create such beauty and perfection in your images.
RB: Well you see that’s our responsibility. I think that if we see that things are not as they could be, each one of us has to make the effort to improve it. I think we are responsible, individually, for what we are doing. I think to be a human being is difficult because we are so aware of what we are doing all the time — and we do it anyway! You see if we were not aware we would have an excuse, because we didn’t know any better. But very often we are aware of our failings and we do not help ourselves improve.
I think we can learn from failing, but we often choose to look the other way. Even though we know what we are doing, we act as if we hadn’t noticed. Then we are failing. If we notice and change then there is no failing, only learning and changing.
DC: How to you feel the artist fits into what you just said?
RB: To create beauty is maybe the very best thing we know how to do. In our relationships to the world and to other people, maybe we fail, but it doesn’t need to show in our work. I’m sure that Picasso was not a very nice fellow. But, he does not reveal that to us in his art. And of course that is very deliberate because he did not want anybody to know that he was failing within other parts of his life. And he was always true to his inner feelings relating to his art and his work, which is why his art has lasted and why nobody but Picasso can create like Picasso.
DC: You have said that you feel much art today is merely imitation.
RB: That’s true of course. There is always the person who would love to be published. And maybe they see that another person gets a lot of publicity and thinks that if they can imitate this quality, maybe they would become famous also. But I don’t think that we are very good at doing imitation work that is meaningful, because if the artist is not inspired by their work they lose all connection with it. Then the work is only imitation, not creation.
DC: But often the public can’t tell the difference between the original inspired work and the imitation.
RB: That is because there is very little art education for young people. And I find it a shame that people can’t see the difference between a work of art and an imitation. They are more impressed with the excitement and momentary stir than with true art. And, of course, the stir for most people is much easier to recognize than profound art.
DC: I think that over time the imitations drop away and we are left with true art.
RB: Oh yes. Absolutely! There are a lot of people that have been forgotten a long time ago. But if a person has the instinct and the desire to be creative, we have to give them a lot of space to develop and discover what the meaning of their art really is. You cannot learn how to draw if you never are encouraged to draw. I think children need to be encouraged to do creative things very early. And even if it doesn’t look like the man and the woman they think they are doing, they should be encouraged to be creative.
But even if someone is not encouraged, I think a creative person can not hide their creative parts, even if they want to. It will come out at some point. It will need to come out. I think the artist will always do what they have to do. They have no choice. I have no choice. When I photograph, I photograph what I have to photograph. I don’t question it. I don’t criticize it. I don’t say this is old-fashioned or this is new. Nothing like that! Each photograph is my creation and that is all that is important to me. I respond to something each time I photograph.
And I respond with enthusiasm for what I am photographing, the whole thing, not just what I am seeing. Take the time I worked with the rag on the clothes line (Rag, 1971). I didn’t see just a rag, but still I did see a rag; and I saw the crucifixion and I saw a sacred object and I saw an old shirt. And not only that, I saw the cotton growing in the field, before it became cloth. The process of becoming a shirt is a long process. It doesn’t just come from Macy’s.
So you see I always see that nothing is what it is now; everything was something before.
DC: What do you see when you look at a human being?
RB: We are seed pods. We are the continuation of the Elders and we are supposed to go ahead and have some more seed and so … Right? And then when we are in the earth we fertilize the whole process. I see a constant continuity. I don’t see anything as static. There is nothing static about sitting here reading this article. Everything is growing, our hair our fingernails; our blood is rushing through our veins. All of this is going on all the time. And there are a lot of thing we cannot see changing, because our life is too short. The photographs we are now making on a piece of paper that came from a tree, that came from a seed, will one day go back to the earth.
And as a photographer I watch for that moment when I make a connection with all of the history of what I am seeing and that is when I release my shutter and I don’t have any doubts about it. And you see, I create only one exposure, so there is no choice to do it over again, if I miss that moment of connection then it is gone.
And in looking back over my connection with life, my only regret is that I do not have more images to leave behind when I fly with the Angels. That I did not create more pictures of my connection with what is here. But I was not the type of photographer who photographed everyday. And also I threw away many of my 8x10 negatives many years ago, and so they are not available to leave.
DC: Why and when did you throw them away?
RB: That was around 1976 when I didn’t think anybody cared, and 8x10 negatives seemed such a burden. So one day I got carried away and tossed most of them into the trash. I still have some, like Creation and some vintage prints that were made from the original negatives that are gone.
DC: During the “lean years” as you have referred to them, what sustained you as an artist?
RB: I photographed. I’m a photographer and I photograph and I didn’t know any better, so I just kept going. And I did all kinds of photography to pay my bills. I photographed children and animals and most anything. Because to me if you are a good photographer you should be able to do good commercial work; and not be ashamed of it. I was always very thrilled that I had the opportunity to do commercial work and that I was doing it well and that I took it seriously. You learn so much about discipline. If someone wants you to do a job and they say they need it on Friday, you have to do it right then; not when you feel like it. That is a very important thing to learn.
DC: Do you feel that photography takes as much discipline as other fields of art?
RB: I think photography is very difficult because we can blame so many parts on the tool. And the tool is not so very important. If you can’t do it with a Brownie, you can’t do it! And if people think that you’re good because you have an expensive tool, that’s a complete misunderstanding.
You can not just do your art when you feel like it. It must be a part of your life and you live your life, live your art, each and every day. As a photographer, that does not mean you must photograph everyday, but some do. But you must see every day. I haven’t been photographing lately. But I see as well and I enjoy as much as ever, I just don’t make images. But I am thoroughly enjoying my way of seeing. And it seems that I have a very large sheet of film in my head, and that is how I record what I see.
DC: You have been photographing for over 70 years?
RB: Well, I came to New York from Germany in 1927 and I started to photograph in 1929 when my father needed photographs. I managed to get an 8x10 view camera and then I started to photograph the work my father needed. And it turned out to be the beginning of my photographic career.
DC: Do you see a difference in your early work compared to your later work?
RB: No! I knew exactly what I wanted every time. And I didn’t have anybody to compare myself with. I didn’t think I was going to photograph like so and so. When I first started to photograph I hadn’t even met Edward Weston yet. I was never influenced by Edward, photographically; but by his spirit, most definitely.
DC: When you moved to San Francisco you became quite involved with a group of photographers. Did this involvement change your perceptions about photography?
RB: Well this group, The Round Table of Photography, which was only made up of San Francisco photographers, was something I really wanted to start. And we inspired each other greatly. There were Imogen Cummingham, whose work was already quite well known; Dorthea Lange who was a great influence in photography and an inspiration to me in her work and her life; Minor White, a very spiritual man and a great person, besides his fabulous photography, and Wynn Bullock who was a very good friend. And we spent a lot of time talking with each other about life and art and so on. And this Round Table would meet and we would inspire each other and have shows in San Francisco. It was a great time for photography.
DC: With all the photographers you have known, who touched you the most?
RB: Edward (Weston). Edward and I were very, very close. We corresponded when we were apart and understood each other very closely. He was a very wonderful man and a warm person. We meant much to each other. When I first moved to Hollywood, Edward was in Carmel, but we still communicated; I don’t think Charis (Weston) was very excited about that . . . but maybe she was excited about that? One way or the other, I still went to see Edward very often. But I lived in Hollywood and so I was never able to spend all the time I wanted with Edward. When I went back to New York I wrote to Edward very often and he always wrote back to me. He was really a great experience for me, photographically and also humanly.
When I moved to San Francisco, Edward lived on Wildcat Ridge, outside Carmel, California, and we went to Point Lobos together. We used to tango in his studio, to the phonograph. It was a small space, but we were small people, so we danced. And I knew all his sons, Cole and Neil and Brett and Chandler. Chandler looked most like Edward. Cole and Neil had a house very close to Edward, within walking distance. They always kissed each other; when they went to the store, they kissed their father goodbye. A very warm family; that was very nice.
Edward was a very kind and gentle man who genuinely loved people and loved life. He met and enjoyed people and he had a big social life. He made friends and wrote letters and would stop what he was doing in order to pay attention to a person. He loved to show people his pictures. You could interrupt Edward during the flow of looking at his pictures and he would discuss them with you, why was this? where was this? anything you wanted. Nothing about his photography was a secret, or something he kept to himself.
DC: During the time you were growing up, the majority of women married, had children and tended to live their lives through the lives of their husbands. What motivated you not to take the typical route.
RB: Well, first of all, there wasn’t anybody there! There wasn’t anybody there I could bond with. I didn’t make any friendships that were love affairs. There were people that I liked, but I didn’t have any romance. I had close friends, but no romances. So there wasn’t any question of marriage and family. There was a young man in New York who always felt that he would be my ‘future ex-husband,’ but we never had a romance. And I have had very good, wonderful friends, photographers and artists, but that was as far as it went.
DC: Did you have early role models who were artists?
RB: Well, my father was an artist and was certainly a major role model. My father saw and made connections with all artists of one kind or another. So I lived an artistic life because everybody was either a painter or dancer or singer.
I think that my life was always involved with being around artists, and at first I never wanted to be an artist because of this; I thought I could never live up to my father’s fame and perfection as an artist. So I looked at photography as being commercial — as a job — not at all as art, or I probably would not have done it. When I met Edward, that changed and I knew photography was art and that I could do it as art as well as to make a living.
DC: You turned your negatives and prints and found objects over to Princeton University. Have you given them the right to print your negatives?
RB: Yes, I have given them everything; some things I still have but they will go to Princeton when I fly with the Angels. As for printing my negatives, I would like a person who knows how to print my work to do it. But I have no idea if that is possible and I’m not going to be stubborn about it, because by that time I will be flying with the Angels; I have no control as an Angel over what is going to happen and I don’t really think it is very important.
If the people who get to print my negatives feel that they are of benefit to them, I’m in favor of that. And if my images are good for the human race I’m for it. I’ve been very fortunate to be a photographer who had a chance to live my own independent life, and that’s been fantastic! I couldn’t be more fortunate. I know many people who have never been able to achieve that. So if other people maybe feel a little bit of that through printing my negatives, I’m all for it. Besides, how can I fly as an Angel if I try to keep a hold on my negatives that are here? It just would not work!
I don’t know how it all came about so easily. Perhaps I have a very bad memory for things that were not good. So I don’t remember any bad parts of it. I only remember the good parts. It is certainly a very great talent that I would like to pass on to everybody, to remember only the good parts.
People came into my life when I needed them, with talents they brought just when I needed them. And now I have had Mary Ann Helmholtz, who has been my own personal Angel for many years. She is a gift of the Gods for me. When I make promises she makes sure that I keep them; and she looks very critically at my prints, so nobody ever gets a print that is not perfect. And she is the perfect person who the Lord gave me, if there is such a thing as the Lord, that is. I am very lucky. Life has always worked out so well for me. I have no regrets.
So that’s how it is with my life and my art. Just like when looking at photographs, it is in the eye of the beholder; and to my eye this life is the best that I could ever have imagined. It is.

Between Art &Life: A Biography by Margaretta Mitchell, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California USA; published October 2000.

Gift of the Common Place - Photographic Prints and Commentary, Woodrose Publishing, Carmel Valley, California USA; published 1996.

The Eternal Body, 2nd Edition - Photographic Prints and Commentary, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California USA; published 1994.

Ruth Bernhard Archives: The Art Museum Princeton University, Peter C. Bunnell, Faculty Curator of Photography. To inquire about original prints and portfolios contact: Mary Ann Helmholtz, Burlingame, California USA; tel: 650-697-1654

Accompanying portraits of Ruth Bernhard by Mona Kuhn, represented by Scott Nichols Gallery, 49 Geary, 4th Floor, San Francisco, California 94109 USA; tel: 415-788-4641

Donna Conrad specializes in 35mm travel, documentary and figure photography. She has written feature articles, columns and interviews for PIC, Camera & Darkroom and PhotoPro magazines.