Ruth Bernhard, 101; photographer of still lifes, female nudes was mentored by Weston

Times Staff Writer

Ruth Bernhard, a pioneer among women photographers who was best known for her abstract images of female nudes, has died. She was 101.

A resident of San Francisco since the early 1950s, Bernhard died at her home Monday of natural causes, her business manager, Mary Ann Helmholtz, said Tuesday.

In a photographic style marked by dramatic lighting, pared-down compositions and materials from everyday life, Bernhard created a small but important body of work. She became known for her still-life photographs as well as for nudes, and credited her friend and mentor Edward Weston as her main inspiration.

"I had not respected photography until I met him," she once said of Weston. "I began then to take myself seriously as an artist."

She refined her technique under his influence starting in the mid-1930s.

"Ruth saw photography as a way to heighten reality, as did Weston," said Arthur Ollman, former director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, in a 2005 interview with The Times. "She made the usual seem extraordinary."

To achieve that effect, Bernhard mixed settings and subjects in unexpected ways. "Embryo" (1934) shows a female nude curled up in an oversized steel bowl. "In the Box, Horizontal" (1962) is of a female nude reclining snugly inside a cardboard packing box. Bernhard brought the same odd combination of elements to her still-life photographs. In "Lifesaver" (1930), pieces of candy roll across a flat surface like runaway tires.

Some critics saw a thread of surrealism in her work. Others referred to her fresh way of looking at the ordinary.

Bernhard was a studio photographer almost exclusively and frequently spent days setting up a composition. She often took only one photograph from one specific angle rather than trying different light settings and angles. She was passionate about her work but not prolific.

"It was an unusual success story," said Stephen White, Bernhard's photography dealer in Los Angeles from the late 1970s to the '80s. "Ruth had a long career, but the range of her work is fairly limited."

She was not as widely known as her California contemporaries Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and Weston. But she was well-regarded in photography circles. "She holds a unique place for the way she photographed female nudes years before the feminists of the 1970s," White said in a 2005 interview with The Times.

The results were not lusty or blatantly sexual.

"Ruth's female nudes show an empathy," her current art dealer, Peter Fetterman, said Tuesday. "When a man photographs a female nude, there is more of an objectification. With Ruth, there is a tenderness."

Bernhard once explained her approach in feminist terms. "Woman has been the subject of much that is sordid and cheap, especially in photography," she told Margaretta K. Mitchell, author of "Ruth Bernhard Between Art and Life" (2000). "To raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman has been my mission."

Few women of Bernhard's generation managed to make any sort of career as photographers, a profession dominated by men during most of the last century. Her near-contemporaries Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White worked as photojournalists. Bernhard supported herself with advertising work, shooting catalogs and taking portraits of clients.

Images she created for her own sake, not on assignment, had a similarly clean, graphic quality. In "Two Leaves" (1952), each leaf stands on end, overlapping, to call attention to the differences. Another work, "Shell in Silk" (1939), shows a pristine clamshell polished and lighted like a stone sculpture.

Observers came to see Bernhard's artistic work as her personal reflections on everyday wonders.

"Ruth had a palpable reverence for life," Ollman said. "She sensed that something far greater than her was powering her and all of life."

Born in Berlin in 1905, the photographer began her career in New York City in the late 1920s after following her father, Lucian Bernhard, to this country. He was a successful graphic artist and typographer, known for designing the Bernhard font that is still in use. Bernhard's father divorced her mother, Gertrude, when Ruth was 2, but he remained a powerful influence on his daughter's life and career. He remarried and had three more children, all sons. Ruth's half brothers, Karl and Alexander, survive her. She never married and had no children.

Ruth studied typography and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin before she joined her father in New York City, where he helped her find work. She was a darkroom assistant for a women's magazine for only a few months. She left to become a freelancer, working for her father's clients and occasionally for him. Years later she recalled photographing nude models draped in sheer fabrics in her father's studio. In one case, he used the image to help him design a fabric print, Bernhard said.

"Embryo," one of her first female nude photographs, was part of an assignment for the Museum of Modern Art. Bernhard shot the catalog "Machine Art" for the museum in 1934. Hoping to make a metal salad bowl look more interesting, she asked a woman friend to pose nude inside it.

"It was a surprise, the work of my intuition," Bernhard said of the image. From then on, she said, she began to trust her creative instincts more than before. Some photographs happened as if by coincidence, she said. She referred to them as gifts.

In the mid-1930s, Bernhard moved to Los Angeles and settled in Hollywood. One of the first people she met in her new city was Weston. A lifetime friendship ensued. She described it as "the love of twin souls, not of a couple."

To help support herself, Bernhard worked for the owner of a doll repair shop on Hollywood Boulevard, photographing his young customers as part of a business promotion for the shop. At that time she began using doll parts for some of her photographs, as in "Creation" (1936), in which a mannequin's hand holds a doll's head.

She began to mount solo exhibits, including one at the Sixth Street Gallery in Los Angeles. "Her approach to her subject carries an intense, almost startling mysticism," a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1936.

In 1939, Bernhard returned to New York City, where she became a frequent contributor to U.S. Camera magazine and was included in the magazine's 1939 cover story, "American Aces," about modern photographers.

Back in California, she settled in San Francisco in 1953, keeping up a friendship with Weston, who had moved to Carmel.

In 1961, when she was 56, Bernhard began a new career as a photography teacher. She held private classes in her studio, led workshops on photographing the nude and offered print evaluation sessions.

"She saw her teaching as more important than her photography," said photographer Michael Kenna, who was Bernhard's photography printer for 10 years starting in the late 1970s.

Rather than technical skills, Bernhard taught her students how to observe. "She took them on nature walks and showed them the caressing qualities of light," Kenna said.

Throughout her life Bernhard had romantic relationships with women as well as men. But the most lasting was with a former student, retired Air Force Col. Price Rice. They did not marry but were a couple for three decades, until Rice died in 1999.

Teaching, lecturing and leading workshops became Bernhard's main means of support.

"There was little demand for her photographs until the 1970s, when photography became popular," Kenna said.

By late in that decade her works had been added to a number of collections, including those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. More recently they were added to the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, among others.

"Ruth is a perfect example of a photographer who benefited from a long life," White said. "It helped that she was around to keep up public interest and build her reputation."

A memorial service is being planned for early next year.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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