In Pictures: The Warm and Sensual Female Nudes of Ruth Bernhard

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10440 Lot 49 - Ruth Bernhard, 'Sand Dune'
Ruth Bernhard, Sand Dune (Lot 49)Courtesy Sotheby’s

Ruth Bernhard’s celebrated and enduring photographs of the female nude feature in an upcoming Sotheby’s auction

Ruth Bernhard first began working in nude photography, the genre for which she would eventually become renowned as an image-maker, in 1934. Born in Berlin in 1905, she had moved to the USA in 1927, and was influenced by the likes of Edward Weston early in her photographic career (who she met in California in 1935 and became friends with). Bernhard’s work – often black and white Modernist nudes, with a sensual, sometimes erotic, focus on the female body – was accomplished and acclaimed during her decades-long career. She was prolific, and lived until 101. “My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify, and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity,” she said.

“Although Ruth Bernhard’s name may not be quite as frequently mentioned as Dorothea Lange or Berenice Abbott, she created some of the most influential and well-loved images in photographic history,” says Aimee Pflieger, specialist and head of sales for photographs at Sotheby’s. “I cannot think of another female photographer who was as accomplished in studio photography as she was and whose name is basically synonymous with the female nude.” A forthcoming Sotheby’s auction focuses on the extraordinary photography collection of Ginny Williams, a friend and contemporary of Bernhard’s; of the 94 photographs featured in the sale, eight of Bernhard’s most renowned images are included, alongside other pioneers of the medium like Diane Arbus, Tina Modotti, Laura Gilpin and Margaret Bourke-White. 

“Not only was Ginny a pioneering female gallerist, but she was also an advocate for female artists,” Pflieger explains. Besides photography, Williams also collected work by Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin. “Ruth Bernhard’s Classic Torso was her first acquisition when her gallery opened in 1984. They became great friends over the years, and Ginny even published a book of her Bernhard collection in 1993. By that time, she had an incredibly deep collection of Bernhard prints – probably the largest in private hands.”

Williams collected some of Bernhard’s most celebrated photographs, some of which are now included in the upcoming Soethby’s sale. “Classic Torso is probably the most sought-after of prints by Bernhard. This evocative, isolated female nude is shown from the neck down so that the figure represents not just an individual but rather epitomises femininity, sensuality, and humanity. Another favourite is Triangles, a nude that moves toward abstraction through dramatic lighting and clever composition,” Pflieger explains. Bernhard herself once described her meticulous focus on form and composition: “I had a natural feeling for sculpture, and the nudes are my sculpture.”

Bernhard returned to the nude time and again during her career; her first monograph, published in 1986, was a collection of 50 nudes entitled The Eternal Body. “Bernhard was an adept Modernist photographer but her nudes have a great warmth and sensuality, and they often make visual references to the natural world. A great example of her adeptness in seeing commonalities of form is Sand Dune, a study of a reclining female figure that Bernhard composed to appear like a rolling desert dune,” says Pflieger. “Bernhard also incorporated elements of Surrealism in her photographs by using mirrors, frosted glass, shells, animal skulls, veils, and dolls within her tableaux. These images are dream-like and playful. She was not afraid to experiment.”

Photographs from the Ginny Williams Collection is at Sotheby’s from July 14, 2020.