The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, which opened in 2001 and now located in the museum quarter in Tampa, has built a reputation for well-curated, stimulating exhibitions. My annual visit coincided with exhibitions by Ruth Bernhard and Elgar Esser (who I'll write about separately). Both exhibitions are well worth visiting if you're in the area.
In an interview a few years before she died, Ruth Bernhard said that 'photographs are really a reflection of the photographer. A photographer’s work is like handwriting. I’m sorry for people who have to put the worst part of themselves in public view.' (1) Later in the same interview she was explicit about the role of the artist being the creation of beauty. It would be fair to say that the best part of Bernhard is on display in the photographs chosen for the FMPA's exhibition, Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form. If these images are her handwriting, they speak to a kind of delicate harmony which emerges from her eye for the beautiful interaction of light with shapes, form and surface.
Ruth Bernhard, a leading twentieth-century photographer of the nude female, was born in 1905 in Germany. Her father was a graphic who specialized in posters and typeface design. Bernhard studied art in Berlin before following her father to New York City in 1927 where she worked as a photographer's assistant and began to make personal photographs. During the 1930s, she photographed for her father and for industrial designers. Around 1934, she began making images of women in the nude.
In 1935, Bernhard met photographer Edward Weston who had a major influence on her life. 'When I first saw Weston’s work, I burst into tears. It was a revelation,' she wrote. 'It was as if I were hearing the music of Bach for the first time.' Weston revealed to Bernhard her true artistic path and the exhibition includes what she considered her real first work of art made soon after this encounter: Creation, in which a doll’s head emerges from the darkness cradled in a wooden hand, may convey an obvious message but hints at the inner beauty for which she was now striving. In 1953, Ruth Bernhard moved from to San Francisco where she became part of an influential group of photographers that included Ansel Adams, who considered her one of the greatest photographers of the female nude figure, and Imogen Cunningham. She made her living by photographing a variety of subjects and started teaching, inspiring younger photographers with her emphasis on personal vision and the qualities of light. Public knowledge of her work spread through exhibitions and books of her images. Following an unfortunate accident in the early 1970s she made no new negatives. Bernhard died at her home in San Francisco in 2006.
Bernhard's relationship with Weston was intense though seemingly purely artistic; she had a number of relationships with men and women throughout her life but always strived to maintain the independence necessary to pursue her own artistic path. Weston's influence is clear in her photographs of nudes in which light is subtly employed to bring out line and shapes like triangles. In the Box (Horizontal), probably her most famous image made in 1962 (above), is unusual in that the figure's face is revealed but in other respects shows her concerns with light and shadow. For Bernhard, a nude was no different from a still life - a subject to be explored and its beauty exposed through the application of light to its shapes and form. Facial expressions were a distraction: 'When the model and the photographer look at each other, it’s very different than seeing a shape that is strong all on it own, without a facial expression. So I don’t have any facial expressions. And if the face is showing, it has to have an inward look, not an outward look. You cannot exchange glances with another person without making it a personal exchange. When you close your eyes and you seem to be alone, that is how I like to have my models in my photographs.' Consistent with these thoughts, In the Box (Vertical) is a remarkably graphic photograph, an exercise in using photography to reveal hidden forms; the figure's arms stretched to the top of the box, her ribs clearly describing their lines, her head is thrown back to obscure the face.
Alongside her nude studies, we see Bernhard's love of surface, form and line in still life photographs of doorknobs, a dramatically lit skull and rosary, sea shells, seed pods, the surface of leaves and the textures of a hand covered in sand. In each of these she explores an aspect of the subject using light to expose its contours - sometimes a graphical composition of lifesavers (an American candy) or drinking straws, sometimes an exploration of shapes and at other times the textures of a natural or artificial surface. In all cases, careful composition and tonal range leads our eye to an inherent beauty. I felt that the juxtaposition techniques of the surrealists emerges in a number of compositions - Kitchen Music (1937) in which an egg slicer (remember Ansel Adams' famous still life?) becomes a stringed instrument of some kind - perhaps a harp. A photograph of a desolate Victorian house is full of pathos and a sense of loss; shot through a rain-spattered window, the remains of dead leaves grow up from the lower edge of the frame, emphasising the past nature of the life the house once knew - we are reminded of of Atget's people-less scenes from old France.
The exhibition's curator, Joanne Milani Cheatham, describes how for Bernhard, the female nude and still life photographs are capable of conveying the same beauty. Both hold latent within themselves 'an embryonic power' and the photograph has 'the ability to bring life into the future'. It is hard to think of a more accurate precis of Bernhard's artistic goals.
(1) A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard', Interview by Donna Conrad, Photovision: Art and Technique, Vol.1, No.3, 2000
Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form, September 6 - December 28, 2014
Copyright © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs reproduced with the permission of the FMPA
Citation Alan Ainsworth, 'Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form - Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa', Alan Ainsworth Photography, 15.11.2014 available at http://www.zenfolio.com/alanainsworthphotography/edit/blog.aspx#1012801405
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