Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Remembering Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard
"In the Box"
gelatin silver print

"My aim is to transform the complexities of the figure into harmonies of simplified forms revealing the innate reality, the life force, the spirit, the inherent symbolism and the underlying remarkable structure – to isolate and give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity."
-Ruth Bernhard

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the photographer Ruth Bernhard died yesterday in San Francisco. Ruth Bernhard was a vital presence in the Bay Area art world. I remember running into her at a gallery opening south of Market a few years ago. Her eyes were like open lenses. She seemed to embody Christopher Isherwood's phrase - "I am a Camera."
In "Goodbye to Berlin" (published in 1939), Isherwood writes:

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed."

For Christopher Isherwood and Ruth Bernhard, Berlin between the wars provided a starting point for future artistic explorations. Ruth Bernhard was born in Berlin in 1905. She studied photography at the Berlin Academy of Art, and moved to New York in 1927 before the onslaught of Nazism. In 1935 she met Edward Weston in California. Peter Marshall writes about this event:

"In 1935, also the year she became an American citizen, that Bernhard first met Edward Weston on a beach in Santa Monica, California. It was a meeting that was to change her life. Until then she had seen photography as a matter of finding a solution to a problem, largely as a design exercise to meet a commercial need. Seeing Weston's work, and talking with him was an epiphany that awakened her to the creative artistic possibilities of the medium."

Ruth was inspired by this meeting, traveled west from New York to work with Weston and eventually resettled in San Francisco.

Ruth Bernhard
"Rice Paper"
gelatin silver print

Ruth brought a forceful presence into her black and white photographs of the figure. Weston's work, though formally exquisite, could seem psychologically hollow in comparision to Bernhard's knowing interpretation of the female form.


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