Though she did not self-identify publicly as lesbian or bisexual, photographer Ruth Bernhard—renowned for her abstract still lifes and female nudes—had enduring romantic relationships with both women and men over the course of her lifetime.
Bernhard was born near Berlin in 1905. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her mother left for the United States. Bernhard’s father, Lucien—himself a noted poster artist and type designer—entrusted her to the care of two female teachers in Hamburg. She was sent off to boarding school at age 11.
After studying at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts, Bernhard moved to New York City in 1927 to join her father, who had established a studio there. His professional connections landed her a job as a darkroom assistant at The Delineator, a popular women’s magazine of that era. But she found the work dull, and soon was dismissed. Using her severance pay to buy a viewfinder camera, she embarked upon a freelance career as a commercial photographer.
In New York, Bernhard was involved with the lesbian artistic community in Greenwich Village. Later, while living in Los Angeles in the 1930s, she had a chance encounter on a beach with photographer Edward Weston. He became her mentor, but she decided to keep the relationship platonic.
In the early 1940s, Bernhard began a 10-year relationship with designer Evelyn Phimister. The two women moved back and forth between New York and California, as Bernhard supported herself photographing pets and children of celebrities. During World War II, she spent time in Sanibel, Florida, where she developed a specialty of photographing seashells. After splitting up with Phimister, Bernhard moved to San Francisco in 1953, settling near the bohemian enclave of North Beach at the dawn of the Beat era.
Bernhard is best-known today for her female nudes. Her work, admired widely by her contemporaries, often juxtaposed natural and artificial elements, such as women curled up in large bowls or boxes.
In her 70s, Bernhard stopped producing new work after she began experiencing impaired concentration because of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty household heater. Yet she continued to teach, lecture, and travel, accompanied by her then-partner, Price Rice, an African-American Air Force colonel 10 years her junior, whom she had met when he took one of her classes. After he died in 1999, she again began a relationship with a woman, photographer Chris Mende, which lasted until Bernhard’s death in 2006.
According to Mende, Bernhard “really felt she fell in love with individual people rather than gender.”
Over her long career, Bernhard inspired multiple generations of budding photographers. Her work is included in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among others.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.