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5 Fast Facts: Ruth Bernhard

Blog Category:  5 Fast Facts
A black-and-white photo that is taken through a rain-spotted screen. Past the screen, the out-of-focus outline of a tree is visible, with a narrow trunk and many wayward branches that expand into a large canopy.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about photographer Ruth Bernhard (1905–2006).

1. Job Dissatisfaction

In her first job, Bernhard assisted darkroom staff at The Delineator (1869–1937), an American women’s magazine. There, she learned the basics of photography—but was not an enthusiastic employee. The publication let her go within six months, and Bernhard used the severance pay to purchase her own camera and equipment.

2. Squad Goals

Bernhard’s education and career took her from Berlin to New York City and Los Angeles before she settled in San Francisco. In each city, she found herself among like-minded artists including Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976), and Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), who are also in NMWA’s collection.

3. Surprising Subjects

First recognized for her still-lifes, Bernhard was hired by the Museum of Modern Art to photograph their 1934 Machine Art exhibition for its catalogue. While working on this project, a dancer friend posed nude inside of a large, stainless steel bowl. The resulting photograph is the first example of the black-and-white images she’s best known for today.

A black-and-white photo of a nude light-skinned woman laying inside the horizontal opening of a box . Her legs are bent at the knees and facing right while the rest of her body is reclined, her left breast exposed to the camera and left extended arm overhead, wrapped around the side of the box. She looks relaxed, with closed eyes and wears a headband.
Ruth Bernhard, In the Box—Horizontal, 1962 (printed 1992); Gelatin silver print, 18 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from the Estate of Ruth Bernhard; © Ruth Bernhard

4. Package Deal

Bernhard created In the Box—Horizontal (1962), part of NMWA’s collection, after receiving a new photographic enlarger. When a model arrived at the studio, the artist could not resist asking her to lie in the empty delivery box.

5. Special Skills

Starting in 1943, Bernhard spent two harvest seasons in the Women’s Land Army to replace male farmers drafted during World War II. To prepare, she took a two-month course in animal husbandry.

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