Ruth Bernhard was the daughter of Lucien Bernhard, a graphic designer known as "the father of the German poster." After studying for two years at the Berlin Academy of Art, she came to New York in 1927 and worked briefly in Ralph Steiner's studio; she bought her first camera the next year. Her first serious photograph, Lifesavers, interested Vogue's art director, Dr. M.F. Agha, and he arranged for its publication in Advertising Art in 1931; many photography assignments in advertising and industrial design photography followed. In 1934, she photographed the Museum of Modern Art's Machine Art exhibition, and began the photographs of nudes for which she is best known. She met Edward Weston in California and was compelled enough by his ideas to move to California in 1935. The focus of her work expanded to include pictures such as Doll's Head, often considered a prototype of Surrealist photography. Bernhard moved back to New York for eight years in 1939 during which time she met Alfred Stieglitz and was the subject of an issue of U.S. Camera. When she returned to California, she joined Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock, and Imogen Cunningham as a leading photographer on the West Coast. She began a long and successful teaching career in 1967 and received the Dorothea Lange Award from the Oakland Art Museum in 1971. Two portfolios of her work--The Eternal Body and The Gift of the Commonplace--appeared in 1976, and a collection of her work, Collecting Light, was published in 1979.
Bernhard treats all of her subjects, whether they are nudes, shells, or advertising products, as objects worthy of detailed observation. The close-up rendering lends a psychological element that aligns her work with both Surrealism and with the formalist tenets of 1930s modernist photography. In combining graphic elegance with sensual subject matter, Bernhard achieves a delicate balance between compositional precision and evocative sensuality.