Photographer Ruth Bernhard died on December 18th at her home in San Francisco at the age of 101. Bernard was well known for her beautiful female nudes and still lifes. She had started to photograph in the 1930s and was a friend of Edward Weston, who she met on a beach in Santa Monica in 1935.
I had the pleasure of having dinner with her one evening when my friend Doris Folberg brought us all together.
Ruth had just gotten back home as we were arriving and had actually forgotten about the dinner engagement. But after a quick change and application of make-up, she and her friend Chris, a nurse and fellow photographer, joined us for dinner.
In answering my questions about how she worked with her models, Bernhard told me that her models were all amateurs who did it because they wanted to work with her. She also felt that as a woman she could put her female models more at ease than any male photographer could.
She stunned me momentarily when she noted that "Two Forms, 1963," were two women. My own preconception had made the couple a man and woman. I asked her why she had changed her printing on this image so much over the years. Ruth replied it was simply because she thought "differently" about the image over time. Just differently--not better, not worse.
We talked about Ruth's love of natural history. She collected all those shells one sees in her images. "Only if the animal is still in the shell, is the shell beautiful," Ruth told me. In fact, she collected her shells in Sanibel, FL, not on the lovely beaches there, but off shore, trawling on boats. She then often kept live specimens in a salt-water aquarium. At that point in her career, time was spent shuffling back and forth between seasons and New York.
She later worked in New Mexico and finally met Georgia O'Keefe. Stieglitz had told her that her work reminded him of O'Keefe's. Many of her unpublished pieces up on her walls at home are flowers, like O'Keefe's, and her Rosary and Steer's Head are similar to another O'Keefe icon.
At the time she told me with a twinkle in her eye, "I'll take all the birthday celebrations that I can." She was 94 at the time.