Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ruth Bernhard's Matchless Images

The work of Ruth Bernhard [1901-2006] presents the case of a commercial photographer whose vision and technique transcended the purposes and utility of the market-place to achieve a body of images which are among the most startlingly impressive, and sensually persuasive in the history of photography. 
A centenegenarian (!!!) who lived a complicated life, as a bi-sexual woman artist, in a profession dominated by men--and men's vision--and bravely explored the subject of the female nude, during an era in which such subject-matter was scorned or censored. 

I'm not privy to the commercial archives which must exist of her work, thus I am limited to the apprehension of her work which has been reproduced in the several monographs devoted to her black and white images; but, the first thing that jumps out at you is that she doesn't repeat herself. Unlike many contemporary serious photographic artists, she doesn't exploit one or two simple conceptual ideas ad infinitum. Each composition is uniquely seen and made (or allowed) to express a distinct visual point. 
Primarily a studio photographer, Bernhard was interested in controlling the circumstances--the lighting and exigencies of the moment--of each exposure, which allowed her to concentrate on the structure and tones of the image, without distraction. 
The image of the life-savers would undoubtedly have sufficed to highlight the shape and white purity of breath mints--but the cleverness and intensity of the image, its playfulness and delight transcend its obvious purpose. Commercial work at this level is so good it works on both levels with little sense of diffusion. She is in this respect quite like Irving Penn, whose many "magazine pictures" for Vogue over the years now can be seen as comprising a separate vision, which towers above its original commercial pretexts, to become a series of iconic symbols of a whole cultural period.
The photo of the movie theatre above suggest the symbolic "aperture" in front of the "lens" of the camera's eye, and by extension the photographer's, or viewer's eye. A movie theatre is therefore metaphorically the "inside" of the perceiving brain, in which the "movie" of sensory data is transmitted. 
Bernhard's nudes, which are the basis of her fame and reputation, are characteristically muted, with a kind of classic calm, an approach which expresses a respect for the body, while metaphorically caressing it with a humility and affection that is almost a-sexual in its regard. --which may be one reason why Bernhard's nudes, unlike those of many other photographers of the nude, were accepted--because of this very neutrality--an impartiality which may yield clues to Bernhard's aesthetic. 

Bernhard's nudes are satisfying, both as constructions of masses in space, as well as worshipful paeans to female beauty. They show how it is possible to perceive the human body simultaneously as both a sexual identity and a purely geometric wonder, without implying either prurience or vicarious possession. This distance, or objectivity, is a quality not always easy to achieve. 

Seen together, Bernhard's body images and her abstract still-lifes and studies compliment one another, demonstrating the same care and insight into meaning and structure. The study of two leaves (above) and the vertical opened shell (below) both exact the same derivation from nature--of complementarity through difference, or the graceful balance of bi-lateral cohesion (or fit). 

The portrait below ambiguates the emotional content: It may express calm, introspection, or thrall (dionysian passion), but our predominent impression is in the balancing of effects: The stretching of the neck from the vertical to the horizontal, the sleek planes of skin against the wispy tresses of hair, the sensual contours of shading and illumination. It both is and is not primarily a photograph of a young woman in a certain position. It's mostly a made thing, a reflexion of beauty controlled and organized, held in perfect, balanced tension. 

Bernhard's curiosity finds expression in unlikely objects and contrasts. The smashed pot below was an object she found, but placing it before the distorted light background creates a collage of contrasting textures which is mysterious, and intriguing. I can't take my eyes off it! 

The ability to "see" as a camera does takes experience. Most of us pass unwittingly each day beside fascinating visual compositions, which we don't notice because they meld into the vortex of data which assaults our senses continuously. The image below is an example of this. Translucent hoses in pale pastel hues are quite common, but who would think of making one the primary focus of a photographic image? 

Several of Bernhard's best nude compositions utilize the notion of containment. Bodies in boxes, in large basins, seen through veils of fabric, or fogged glass, etc. This is a framing device, but it also creates a structural tension between the sinuous flexibility of the body, and rigid geometric planes and angles: The body accommodates the volumes and curtailments of coordinated space, while softening and filling it with organic adaptations, like an octopus squeezing through a narrow tube. 

Clotheslines have been a traditional subject of photographers since the medium was born. Here, Bernhard turns the mode on its head by emphasizing the astonishing beauty of an old torn rag, illuminated from behind by mid-morning light. Several possible metaphors could be derived from the layering of the fabric, in front of the pole and arms behind. The best abstractions are those which
suggest, but do not completely denote an image or programmatic signifier. 

Another aspect of her work, is her ability to make ordinary objects seem strange, or to make unusual objects or situations intriguing. I'm not sure what the two objects are in the photograph below, but my imagination is drawn to them. This strangeness is one of the strongest aspects of post-Modern art. Classic Surrealism was/is often preoccupied with making ordinary things seem peculiar or out-of-context. Post-Modernism often seems to be about making shapes and masses which suggest other things or objects, but don't actually quite look like something familiar. The more we look at them, the more they simply become self-contextual, non-referential content. 

The image below suggests to me the kind of approach Bernhard would have learned from her commercial practice in Los Angeles. Stage composition. The lighting seems very stagy, but dreamlike as well. The fact that these are puppets seems secondary, somehow, to the meaning of the relationships between the figures and the tilted window. It's obviously some kind of "Easter" story, but the "moment" of the exposure, the fixed positions, the tilt, gestural and filled with anticipation, is uncanny. 


The last image is my favorite of Bernhard's published oeuvre. It's troubling. Is the covered body (and head/face) meant to suggest death? Suppression of identity, of female submission or shame? And the decision to render it in a horizontal oval is equally suggestive. I've never been clear on why early photographers chose to frame images in oval. Facial oval portraits obviously had some kind of rational basis, but Bernhard's use of framing is a different matter entirely. I leave the reader with this conundrum. What does this image suggest, and what is the basis of its troubling suggestiveness?


J said...

bring back Wright Morris!

Of course it's your site, Sir, but, gazing at the usual noirish nipples and navels of the Weston-soft porno school (Sappho always moves product), I feel compelled to reiterate: Fine-Ahht photography's not really...Art. (Photojournalism's another matter--it may be quite important, but important mainly as accompaniment to text, or as documentary footage, ala newsreels, 60s minutes, or Michael Moore, etc)

Weston-esque pics may require skills and a certain craft--as with the lighting, setting the focus, shutter speeds,etc. and arranging shapes--photo-design, really. Even the greats--Weston, Adams, the WPA school--were not really producing art-works, as in Van Gogh, or Caspar David Friedrich or Zap Comix.

Curtis Faville said...

Well, now, J, I'm really going to have to disagree with you here. The debate about whether photography can really be considered a "fine art" has already taken place--50 years ago--and photography won that argument.

If all that you see in Bernhard's nudes is "noirish nipples and navels" I'm afraid you may simply not be getting it. Van Deren Coke was once quoted as saying (the exact wording may be wrong) "in the end, either you get it or you don't [the appreciation or love of the photographic image]--no amount of convincing may work with some people...."

Maybe you haven't seen enough mediocre photography to understand how good Bernhard's work is, in comparison. Of maybe you're not adequately exercising your discrimination.

In any case, you'll get some serious disagreement among the critical community about her. She's widely regarded as a master.

J said...

The art-photography peoples decided it was Art, as did the galleries selling it, or museums selling tickets. And good photography does requires skills--then so does needlepoint, or building furniture, or playing a fiddle. Ansel Adams was a great craftsman.

I have, however, come to the conclusion that even great photography via Adams, Weston, National Geo., cinematography, et al does not qualify as a fine Art, as say, the old masters are, or classical music, or the greatest lit. It's image production, mainly, and useful for personal souvenirs/snapshots--as well as advertising, journalism, or.... porno.

Ehshallah! (my slight iconoclasm sort of a postmod thing I've been toying with...I'm somewhat opposed to the endless figurative/comic book imagery as well.....)

Curtis Faville said...

One of the classic misconceptions about photography is that it's an "easy" craft, that one simply points the camera at something, clicks the shutter, and the resulting print simply pops out, fully edited and formed. This is completely untrue!

The best photographers in the world typically take the greatest pains to engineer a finished image. Working either in the studio or out of doors, within the range of possible materials, actually requires greater effort than making a painting. In addition, generating multiple identical prints from the same negative is almost impossible. Part of the problem is that people think that because a photograph can be reproduced in a book, with a printing press, that this must imply that making an original print is just as straightforward a process. It isn't!

Field/studio and darkroom technique take years to learn and perfect. And then, even with complete competence, most people display no originality or genius whatever as image-makers. The idea that aesthetic photography is merely a "technique" or "industrial function" is completely false.

Ed Baker said...


the image draped is obviously a naked woman wit
h an erection!

a man once told me his definition of art:

"Whatever sells is art."

then he bought one of my abstract/concrete "goddesses"

I got his point. Now I just either keep things or give them way..

no sense make of anything that is
to be pimping myself....


may answer to his question "What is art?" was "Art who?"

then he and his cute secretary in the polka-dot mini-mini skirt started singing:

"Like a briiddddggggeeeee over troubled waters, I will lay me down...."

Curtis Faville said...


You tend to relate every event or question to something in your own life. I guess that's a legitimate way of making sense of things, but in cases where your own experience might not furnish a counterpart, it could leave you with nothing to say.

I would suggest that the robed prone portrait has deeper levels of significance and implication than your comment -- "the image draped is obviously a naked woman with an erection!" -- seems to suggest. I see nothing sexual in it myself. Perhaps you were just making a joke?

Ed Baker said...

not a joking matter.. I take EVERYTHING very very seiously every evry second:

in fact I
mostly never have nothing to say and
spend all of my time saying


nice photo I like the torque angst in her hiddenality..

and the color very Daugerre-esque

just how I see Steinbeck's images
through his pointed lens...

neat photo all of 'em.

everything after all is merely
subjective, eh?

J said...

Actually, Sir F, the impact of the images probably have more to do with Miss Bernhard--and her life--than with her product. That's the case with much Ahhht: most people respond first to the artiste's biography, not really to the photo or painting (or words, notes, etc).

Some critics or academics focus on the work, but for the most part, the hipsters out in SF or LA galleries and museums, are, mainly ...getting stimulated by bio-details, sort of the entire sexxay context of the Ahht world (as Bernhard's bio/wiki page shows).

Whether it's art-photography, or visual art (or beat-poetry, jazz et al) the art-experience provides vicarious, bourgeois thrills--attend the opening with celebrities, take in the decadent snobs, chic lesbians, westside pretty boys, eccentric/bizarre artists etc. That's how it's marketed, even if yr stuck in Taft, and can't make it...

The modern art-world experience thus has little to do with any specific content (tho' yes at times there may be a social realist theme considered for a few seconds), and is hardly different than fashion. I don't think it was always like that--maybe since like the French revolution...

Were some scholars to discover that Miss Bernhard was actually... a male..her/his art-photos would plummet in value, and would be ignored, like, henceforth.

Curtis Faville said...


Well, I don't know about the identity thing.

I knew nothing about Bernhard when I first saw her images. She didn't look unusual--rather, I imagine, like any intelligent little lady.

AFTER finding something out about her private life, my feelings about the nudes, for instance, didn't change at all.

It might be interesting to compare how Sturges approaches the nude, versus someone like Bernhard. I'm sure it's been done. Bernhard's female nudes seem sexually neutral, to me, unlike many others'.

Sam Hiser said...

J's comment is flame-bait.

His point is that all photography is craft. I don't think he'll get any takers on that.

Some photography fails to transcend; some painting fails to transcend.

Re photography, it's important to recognize how short the tradition has been. The greats, the pioneers (I would include Ruth there) are being eclipsed as we speak by people who's names we do not know.

(I'm holding back ad hominem assertions about J's character.)