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Ruth Bernhard

  • Ruth Bernhard was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s. Beside her series on female nudes, her place in the photography network, as well as in the New York queer scene, is unknown and understudied.
  • Given name:
  • Last name:
  • Date of Birth:
  • Place of Birth:
    Berlin (DE)
  • Date of Death:
  • Place of Death:
    San Francisco (US)
  • Profession:
  • Introduction:

    Ruth Bernhard was a German émigré photographer who lived in New York from the 1920s to the 1940s. Beside her series on female nudes, her place in the photography network, as well as in the New York queer scene, is unknown and understudied.

    Word Count: 43

  • Signature Image:
    Lotte Jacobi, Ruth Bernhard, 1945, New York (© 2021. University of New Hampshire).
  • Content:

    During the 1920s and 1940s Ruth Bernhard lived at seven different locations in Manhattan, mostly Midtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village. Addresses where she stayed have been reconstructed via Margaretta Mitchell's memoir of her, Between Art & Life. (Mitchell 2000) As Mitchell's descriptions mostly do not contain exact dates and street numbers, the addresses given here are educated guesses. Nevertheless, it is clear that Ruth Bernhard lived in the artistic and cultural centre of New York. Midtown Manhattan was mostly the home of printing and the commercial and portrait photography business, whereas Greenwich Village was the centre of the young emerging art scene.

    Ruth Bernhard arrived in New York in 1927 at the age of 22 and joined her father Lucian Bernhard, a renowned graphic designer and visual artist whose new compositions and typography in advertising art and poster design had been very much appreciated back in Germany. Together with Rockwell Kent, Paul Poiret, Bruno Paul, and Erich Mendelsohn, in 1927 he opened a studio called Contempora in the Time Annex Building (229 West 43rd Street), expounding new ideas and concepts in interior design, visual art and architecture.

    After her arrival in New York, Ruth Bernhard became embedded in her father's artistic and prosperous network, took English lessons and was tutored in how to dress like an "American". During the 1920s, Bernhard had studied art history and typography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin and worked in the portrait studio of Margaret Willinger. Encouraged by her father to pursue a career as a photographer, in 1929 she took up a position as darkroom assistant to Ralph Steiner on Delineator magazine, where she increased her knowledge of the practical and technical side of working with a camera. Nevertheless, she found darkroom work too constricting and soon left the assistant job. In 1930 she began experimenting and created still lifes of objects she bought at the Woolworth department store. “My first real photograph was Lifesavers, which, in the back of my mind, was an image that become fabric. It was inspired by the busy traffic on Fifth Avenue. And then I bought straws, dressmaker pins in rigid rows, and ribbons. So I began to enjoy photography. I worked at night making still lifes, and during the daytime I browsed around the neighbourhood. I have always worked best at night, when the world is quiet. For hours I would make light play across objects, or through glass against a with cloth. Thanks to my father my experiments were seen by art directors and magazine editors.” (Mitchell 2000, 36)
    In her image Lifesavers she captured the form and beauty of the simple round shapes of the ring-shaped sweets called Lifesavers. The play of light and shadow shows clearly the experiment with formal design and everyday objects. Looking closely, one can detect the details and imperfect otherness of each sweet. Lifesavers was her first photograph to be published (even if in portrait rather than landscape orientation), in the January 1931 issue of Advertising Arts magazine. Besides working for her father “draping silk of his own design on either mannequin or model to photograph it” (Mitchell 2000, 32) Bernhard made montages of her still life and model photographs. Ruth Bernhard won her first assignments during the 1930s photographing objects such as puppets and creating window displays for department stores like Macy’s or Saks. Interestingly also other emigrant artists as the German photographer Hermann Landshoff with a shoot on the rooftop of the department store or the Ukraine illustrator Vladimir Bobritsky (Bobri) as graphic advertiser worked for Saks. The advertisements were for example published in the magazine Gebrauchsgraphik, where also the German photographer Walter Sanders has contributed before his emigration.

    In addition, Ruth Bernhard photographed design and interior objects for Henry Dreyfuss, Gustave Jensen, Russell Wright and Frederick Kiesler, who were designer and architect colleagues of her father and “part of the modern movement in art and design, and I found myself in the middle of it” (Mitchell 2000, 37) – and also in the middle of a network of émigré designers and architects. Experimentation with light and shadow while focusing the object in a clear and natural environment can also be seen in the work of Ruth Bernhard. For her, experimenting with light was a major factor in her work: “Light is the reason for my photographing at all. It is a language that speaks to me. It reveals the subject and becomes an experience that matches my feelings. In that fusion I sense the life-force there in the subject and in myself. In that glow, I am in alive, madly in love with the world.” (Mitchell 2000, 5).

    In 1934 she was commissioned to photograph all the exhibited objects for the catalogue of the Machine Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. She landed this commission and contact through the émigré architect and designer Jan Ruhtenberg, who lived in the apartment above her. Ruhtenberg, who was trained in furniture design in the 1920s in Berlin and, after his emigration to New York, became part the modern International Style circle, was responsible for exhibit selection, presentation and the visual design of Machine Art. Apart from this contribution, Ruhtenberg’s role in architecture and design in New York is overlooked and understudied. Bernhard enjoyed producing the photographs for the catalogue and described the experience thus: “I loved every minute of it. I worked on a table with a simple background. I used photo floods, a no.1 and no. 2 on stands. I used silver paper and white sheets to reflect light. I arranged jars and glass bottles. I just loved the way they looked. I saw beauty in the lights on objects.” (Mitchell 2000, 40). The assignment, with a paycheque of $400 (about $7 775 in 2021), was also well paid. During her work for the catalogue, Bernhard also created her first nude pictures. She was photographing a steel bowl when her friend Peggy Boone dropped in to visit her, took off her clothes and climbed into the bowl. “I was delighted that the curled-up nude resembled an embryo. It was a surprise, the work of my intuition.” (Mitchell 2000, 41). In 1936, her first nude was also published in the June issue of U.S. Camera.

    During the latter part of the 1920s Bernhard also began portraying her personal network and, also around this time, came out as lesbian. Her first lover was Patti Light "who was really a femme fatale for me. She was much older, a well-known painter, and she had a husband. I photographed her with a painting of him” (Mitchell 2000, 34). In Mitchell's memoir, Bernhard gave more details on queer meeting places in Manhattan, such as “Childs” in Times Square, “where there was tea dancing for girls in the afternoon. The space was always filled, with everyone in snappy clothes, dressed up, even sophisticated” (Mitchell 2000, 37–38). Through the photographer Berenice Abbott (living at 50 Commerce Street) and her friend and the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, she got in contact with the artistic and queer scene in Greenwich Village, where she also lived during the 1930s and later on in the 1940s. The queer and gendered spaces for émigré photographers are still understudied, so it is possible that Ruth Bernhard also had contact with other émigré photographers such as Rolf Tietgens and Rudy Burckhardt who were part of the queer network of intellectuals and artists in Greenwich Village and Chelsea. Her portraits of the novelist Patricia Highsmith, who was also a friend of Rolf Tietgens, suggests that this could be the case.

    From 1935 to 1938 Ruth Bernhard lived in Los Angeles, where she had her own portrait studio on Wilshire Boulevard, in a quarter where there were many small studios. While exploring the city with her camera one day, she discovered a puppet theatre and a hospital for broken dolls and some of the photographs she took were included in her surrealistic montage Creation. During this time, she also met and worked with the photographer Ansel Adams. On 6 October, 1936, she put on an exhibition at the Jake Zeitlin Gallery (614 West Sixth Street, Los Angeles).

    After the three years on the West Coast, Ruth Bernhard returned to New York in 1938. “This was the same year that Beaumont Newhall published the first edition of his History of Photography, in which he mentioned only two women photographers, Berenice Abbott and Barbara Morgan. Others of us who were younger were just being discovered.” (Mitchell 2000, 50). In the same year, she had her first exhibition at the PM Gallery, for which Kurt Safranski wrote the announcement for her exhibition flyer, and also an exhibition at the Weyhe Gallery. Interestingly, the following year, she produced a reportage on the demolition on the World’s Fair for the Black Star picture agency, of which Kurt Safranski, Ernest Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld were the founders. The photos were also published in the Highway Traveler magazine. (Turrie 1941)

    Over the following years, several photographs were published in magazines such as U.S. Camera (June 1939, Annual 1940), The Complete Photographer (1939) and Popular Photography (July 1938, May 1941, November 1944). Popular Photography was an important magazine for émigré photographers, who were able to publish both their images from their previous times in Europe as well as newer photographs from their exile in New York. Among the émigré photographers published were Lucien Aigner, Erwin Blumenfeld, Josef Breitenbach, Alexey Brodovitch, Rudy Burckhardt, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Andreas Feininger, Philippe Halsman, Fritz Henle, Ruth Jacobi, Lilly Joss, Clemens Kalischer, George Karger, André Kértész, Hermann Landshoff, Lisa Larsen, Herbert Matter, Hansel Mieth, Lisette Model, Martin Munkacsi, Fritz Neugass, Walter Sanders, Kurt Safranski, Xanti Schawinsky, Rolf Tietgens, Werner Wolff, Roman Vishniac and Ylla. Her photostory for the November 1955 issue of Popular Photography titled "Beachcombers Art – You don’t need a scientific interest in shells to get photographic fun and information from them" focused at her photographs of shells which she considered excellent for teaching varieties of composition, light, shadow and forms. (Bernhard 1944) Her photographs gave these natural objects a surrealist and architectural appearance. She used both black and white film and Kodachrome. The same photographic and technical aesthetic can also be seen in her female nudes, which form abstract flowing shapes in black and white. Besides these artistic and experimental works, Bernhard also produced portraits during the 1940s, making visible the sociocultural and ethnic diversity of New York and its surroundings. Of the Russian émigré Alexandra Tolstoy, who came from Japan to New York, she said: “In the country she started a farm with large gardens, where her group lived and worked. I remember seeing Greek Orthodox priests in a church that was part of the complex where Russian refugees could find a home.” (Mitchell 2000, 50)

    During the 1940s she was in contact with photography and art colleagues such as Alfred Stieglitz, Geogria O’Keffe and Erica Anderson (who was a colleague of Ala Story), as well as with the theatre photographer Marcus Blechman (Forty East 56th Street), who produced portraits of her. In 1948, Ruth Bernhard moved with her friend Eveline Phimister to San Francisco and Los Angeles, working as photographer with her own studio. During the 1950s she belonged to the circle of photographers that included Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Marion Baruch, carrying out surrealistic experiments, still lifes, ‘portraits’ of shells, leaves and female nudes. From the 1950s, there were also portraits of the Austrian émigré Rudi Gernreich, who established in Los Angeles and New York innovative unisex avantgarde fashion and is another understudied figure in the LGTB movement.

    During the 1950s and 1960s, after giving workshops and several lectures the years before, Ruth Bernhard started teaching a variety of classes and workshops. Beside private classes, she gave workshops in 1958 at the University of California, in 1971 a master class at the New York University and in 1973 lectures at the Columbia College. Furthermore, she had planned a book The Eye Beyond emphasizing her thoughts and technical notes with photographic examples on the camera as medium of self-exploration and self-expression. But the book was never published. In the 1970s, a decade in which women artists received more attention, Ruth Bernhard and a number of other female photographers also gained recognition through such exhibitions as Women in Photography, A historical survey (curators Margery Mann and Anne Noggle, San Francisco Museum of Art) and Recollections, Ten Woman Photographers at the International Center for Photography, where she met up with the émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi . It was also Lotte Jacobi who made some portraits of Ruth Bernhard. Nevertheless, “famous as she is today, in the 1970s Ruth was well known only to her small coterie of students, collectors and curators. I realized then that she and her generation of women photographers had essentially been left out of the written history of American photography” (Mitchell 2000, 2–3). This quote, from Margaretta Mitchell, who wrote Between Art & Life, a memoir of Ruth Bernhard, can now be somewhat revised. This century, a number of Bernhard's works, such as her female nudes, have been recognised, but it is still true that most of her work, along with that of the artistic, female and queer network in New York and Los Angeles, is still not yet sufficiently studied and could provide an important contribution to today's debates.

    Word Count: 2180

  • Media:
    Scrapbook and published work by Ruth Bernhard (Ruth Bernhard Archive, Special Collection Princeton University © Trustees of Princeton University).
    Lifesavers by Ruth Bernhard, published in Advertisment Arts, January 1931 (Ruth Bernhard Archive, Special Collection Princeton University © Trustees of Princeton University).
    Still Life of dolls for Macy’s by Ruth Bernhard, published in Graphic Arts, 1931 (Ruth Bernhard Archive, Special Collection Princeton University © Trustees of Princeton University).
    Ruth Bernhard, Eighth Street Movie Theater, Frederick Kiesler-Architect, New York, 1946 (Diversity Corner is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0).
    Exhibition flyer for Ruth Bernhard Photographs, PM Gallery, 1938 (Ruth Bernhard Archive, Special Collection Princeton University © Trustees of Princeton University).
    Description of Ruth Bernhard Photographs exhibition, by Kurt Safranski, PM Gallery, 1938 (Ruth Bernhard Archive, Special Collection Princeton University © Trustees of Princeton University).
  • Bibliography (selected):

    Bernhard, Ruth. "Beachcombers Art – You don’t need a scientific interest in shells to get photographic fun and information from them." Popular Photography, November 1944, pp. 49–51; 101–102.

    Displaced Visions. Émigré Photographers of the 20th Century, edited by Nissan N. Perez, exh. cat. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2013.

    Gefter, Philip. "Ruth Bernhard, Photographer, Dies at 101." The New York Times, 21 December 2006, p. 37.

    Gilbert, George. The Illustrated Worldwide Who’s Who of Jews in Photography. G. Gilbert, 1996.

    In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, edited by Ilene Susan Fort and Teresa Arcq, exh. cat Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2012.

    Maloney, Tom. U.S. Camera Annual 1940. Random House, 1940,

    Mitchell, Margaretta K., and Ruth Bernhard. Ruth Bernhard. Between Art & Life. Chronicle Books, 2000.

    Recollections. Ten Women of Photography, edited by Margaretta K. Mitchell, exh. cat. International Center for Photography, New York, 1979.

    Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. Abbeville Press, 1994.

    Ruth Bernhard: Known and Unknown, edited by Constance W. Glenn, exh. cat. University Art Museum California State University, Long Beach, 1996.

    Ruth Bernhard. The Eternal Body. A collection of fifty nudes, edited by Margaretta Mitchell and Karen Sinsheimer, exh. cat. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, 2011.

    Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith. The Secret Life and Serious art of Patricia Highsmith. St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

    Summers, Claude J., editor. The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts. Cleis Press, 2004.

    Turin, Beatrice. "Where the World of Tomorrow Is But the Ghost of Yesterday." The Highway Traveler, vol. 13, no. 2, 1941, pp. 14–15; 42.  

    Women of Photography. A historical survey, edited by Margery Mann and Anne Noggle, exh. cat. San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, 1975.

    Word Count: 269

  • Archives and Sources:

    Word Count: 33

  • Acknowledgements:

    My deepest thanks go to the Princeton Library and Special Collection for providing me with information and granting the images rights on Ruth Bernhard as well as to the University of New Hampshire.

    Word Count: 33

  • Author:
    Helene Roth
  • Exile:

    New York, US (1927–1935); New York, US (1938–1948).

  • Known addresses in Metromod cities:

    Roosevelt Hotel, East 45th Street, Turtle Bay, Manhattan, New York City (residence, 1927); East 59th Street, Central Park South / Sutton Place, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1927–1930); 59th West Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, Central Park South, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1930–1932); Bleeker Street curve of the EL, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1932–1934); Corner 34th East Street and Lexington Avenue, Kips Bay, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1934–1935); across the Armory Regiment Building between Lexington Avenue and corner East 26th Street, Kips Bay, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1938–1944); South Washington Square, Madison Square District, Manhattan, New York City (residence and workplace, 1944–1948).

  • Metropolis:
    New York
  • Helene Roth. "Ruth Bernhard." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 17-12-2022.
  • Hermann Landshoff
    New York

    Besides outdoor fashion shots, Hermann Landshoff was a portrait and street photographer. During his time in New York, he captured the cultural, artistic and intellectual émigré scene as well as his photographer colleagues.

    Word Count: 33

    Walter Sanders
    New York

    Walter Sanders was a German émigré photographer. In 1938 he arrived in New York, where he worked from 1939 until the end of his life for the Black Star agency and, from 1944, for Life magazine.

    Word Count: 33

    Kurt Safranski
    Picture AgentFounding MemberTeacherCartoonistPublisherIllustrator
    New York

    Kurt Safranski was one of the founding members of the Black Star photo agency, a teacher at the New School for Social Research and the author of photojournalistic articles and books.

    Word Count: 31

    Andreas Feininger
    New York

    Andreas Feininger, was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York with his wife Wysse Feininger in 1939. He started a lifelong career exploring the city's streets, working as a photojournalist and writing a large number of photography manuals.

    Word Count: 39

    Lisette Model
    New York

    Lisette Model was an Austrian-born photographer who lived in New York with her husband Evsa Model after emigrating from France. Her street photographs capturing the curiosities of everyday life quickly caught the interest of museums and magazines.

    Word Count: 37

    Fred Stein
    New York

    Always accompanied by his camera, the German émigré photographer Fred Stein discovered New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. His pictures provide an human and multifaceted view of the metropolis.

    Word Count: 31

    Rolf Tietgens
    New York

    Rolf Tietgens was a German émigré photographer who arrived in New York in 1938. Although, in the course of his photographic career, his artistic and surrealist images were published and shown at exhibitions, his work, today, is very little known.

    Word Count: 39

    Lotte Jacobi
    New York

    In October 1935 the German émigré photographer Lotte Jacobi, together with her sister Ruth Jacobi, opened a photo studio on 57th Street. The two sisters had to leave their parents' photo studio in Berlin in the 1930s and emigrated to New York.

    Word Count: 41

    Ruth Jacobi
    New York

    Ruth Jacobi was a German-speaking, Polish-born photographer who emigrated in 1935 to New York, where she opened a studio together with her sister Lotte Jacobi. She later had her own portrait studio.

    Word Count: 31

    Fritz Henle
    New York

    Fritz Henle was a German Jewish photographer who emigrated in 1936 to New York, where he worked as a photojournalist for various magazines. He also published several photobooks of his travels throughout North America and Asia.

    Word Count: 35

    Kurt Kornfeld
    PublisherPicture AgentFounding Member
    New York

    Kurt Kornfeld was a publisher and literary agent and a founding member of the Black Star photo agency in New York City after his emigration in 1936 to New York.

    Word Count: 29

    Ernest Mayer
    Picture AgentFounding MemberPublisher
    New York

    Ernest Mayer was co-founder of the Black Star Publishing Company photo agency, which built a network for émigré photographers and the American magazine scene from the mid-1930s until the end of the 1950s.

    Word Count: 34

    Ruth Staudinger
    PhotographerCinematographerArt dealer
    New York

    Very few and only fragmentary details can be found on the German émigré photographer Ruth Staudinger, who emigrated in the mid-1930s to New York City. Her nomadic life was also characterisedd by several changes of name along the way.

    Word Count: 40

    Carola Gregor
    New York

    The German émigré photographer Carola Gregor was an animal and child photographer and published some of her work in magazines and books. Today her work and life are almost forgotten.

    Word Count: 30

    Rudy Burckhardt
    New York

    Rudy Burckhardt was a Swiss-born photographer, filmmaker and painter who emigrated from Basle to New York City in 1935. He was well networked within the emerging Abstract Expressionist art scene of 1940s' and 50s'.

    Word Count: 33

    New York World's Fair postcard View of the Constitution Mall looking toward statue of George Washington and Trylon and Perisphere
    New York

    Shortly after the arrival in New York in 1939, photographs by the German émigré Ernest Nash were used and reproduced for postcards of the New York’s World’s Fair.

    Word Count: 29

    Black Star Agency
    Photo Agency
    New York

    The German émigrés Kurt S(z)afranski, Ern(e)st Mayer and Kurt Kornfeld founded Black Star in 1936. The photo agency established was a well-run networking institution in New York.

    Word Count: 31

    Leco Photo Service
    Photo Lab
    New York

    Leco Photo Service was a photofinishing lab, highly-frequented and a contact hub for émigré photographers and photo agencies during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as a provider of employment for women in the photo industry.

    Word Count: 36

    New School for Social Research
    Academy/Art SchoolPhoto SchoolUniversity / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute
    New York

    During the 1940s and 1950s emigrated graphic designers and photographers, along with artists and intellectuals, were given the opportunity to held lectures and workshops at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31

    Norlyst Gallery
    GalleryArt Gallery
    New York

    Founded in 1943 by the American painter and art collector Elenore Lust, the Norlyst Gallery represented a cross section of contemporary painting, photography and other media focusing on surrealist and abstract expressionist styles and promoting women artists and photographers.

    Word Count: 38

    Weyhe Gallery
    Art Gallery
    New York

    Opened in 1919 by the German-born art dealer Erhard Weyhe opened a bookstore and gallery space specialised in contemporary European artists and was the first to specialise in prints.

    Word Count: 28

    JJK Copy-Art
    Photo LabPhoto StudioPhoto Supplier
    New York

    JJK Copy-Art was a photo studio and photofinishing service founded in 1929 by the Jewish Austrian émigré James J. Kriegsmann (1909–1994) and was located at 165 West 46th Street.

    Word Count: 26

    Photo Supplier
    New York

    Spiratone was a photo company and photo supplier founded in 1941 by the Austrian émigré family Hans (1888–1944) and Paula Spira (?–?) and their son Fred Spira (1924–2007).

    Word Count: 24

    American-British Art Center
    Art Center
    New York

    The émigré gallerist Ala Story left London for New York around 1940, where she co-founded the American-British Art Center, which introduced British and US artists to the public.

    Word Count: 27

    Werner Wolff
    New York

    Werner Wolff was forced to leave Germany in 1936 due to his Jewish background and emigrated via Hamburg to New York, where he could follow his career as photographer and photojournalist.

    Word Count: 30

    Josef Breitenbach
    New York

    On arriving in New York in 1941, the German photographer Josef Breitenbach tried to restart as a portrait, street and experimental photographer, as well as a teacher of photo-history and techniques.

    Word Count: 30

    Alexey Brodovitch
    PhotographerArt DirectorGraphic Designer
    New York

    Alexey Brodovitch was a Belarus-born émigré graphic artist, art director and photographer who, from 1933, worked in New York for Harper’s Bazaar magazine and at the New School for Social Research.

    Word Count: 31

    Vladimir Bobritsky
    PainterScene DesignerGraphic ArtistMusician

    Bobritsky worked at the Theatre des Petits Champs, where he successfully dealt with stage designs and costumes, at the same time he participated in the Union of Russian Painters in Constantinople.

    Word Count: 31

    Lilly Joss
    New York

    Lilly Joss was an émigré freelance photographer in New York. She worked for the Black Star photo agency and magazines and was also a portrait and theatre photographer.

    Word Count: 28

    New York

    Ylla was an Austrian-born photographer who emigrated to New York in 1941. Specialising in animal photography, she produced not only studio photographs, but also shot outside on urban locations in the metropolis.

    Word Count: 31

    Ala Story
    GalleristCuratorArt CollectorMuseums Director

    Originally from Vienna, Ala Story worked for galleries such as Redfern and Storran, opened the Stafford Gallery in 1938 and developed it into the British Art Centre.

    Word Count: 26