Studies in Black and White: The Papers of Ruth Bernhard (C1468)

The Manuscripts Division is pleased to announce that the papers of German–born American photographer Ruth Bernhard (1905–2006) are now available for study. They were transferred to the Library by the Princeton University Art Museum, to which Bernhard had bequeathed them. Bernhard is best known for her complex black-and-white photographs of still-lives and female nudes, in which she reimagined the relationship between photographer and model as one of identification rather than objectification. The resulting photographs provide a sensual rather than erotic image of the female body as an ideal form, similar to classical sculpture.  In 1927, after two years at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin studying art history and typography, Bernhard followed her father, graphic designer Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972), to New York City, where she worked as a commercial photographer. She was responsible for the photography in Machine Art (1934), the Museum of Modern Art’s first exhibition catalogue.

What would become a life-long study of the nude began in 1934 when Bernhard asked a dancer friend to pose in a large industrial stainless steel bowl. Her first photographic monograph, The Eternal Body (1986), a collection of fifty nudes, remains an influential work on nude photography. In 1935, after meeting her mentor, photographer Edward Weston (1886–1958), in Carmel, California, Bernhard became interested in the the work of West Coast photographers, such as Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Minor White, and Wynn Bullock. After spending time in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s, where her first solo show appeared at the Jake Zeitlin Gallery in 1936, Bernhard moved to Carmel in 1944 and later settled in San Francisco in 1953. There she would reside for the rest of her life. Many of her best known photographs date from the 1950s and 1960s, including Classic Torso (1952), In the Box, Horizontal (1962), and Two Forms (1963). From 1961, Bernhard led workshops and courses at the University of California Extension Program, the Ansel Adams Workshops in Yosemite, the John Sexton Workshops in Carmel, as well as international master classes. Her printers Michael Kenna and Saïd Nuseibeh continued to produce prints from her negatives. Bernhard devoted herself increasingly to teaching photography after her near-fatal carbon monoxide poisoning in the mid-1970s and remained active as an educator well into her 90s.

For a detailed description of Ruth Bernhard’s papers, one should access the finding aid at  Bernhard’s 78 boxes of papers include correspondence, manuscripts, and artists proofs for published and unpublished books, publicity materials, teaching materials, appointment books, and a large series of memorabilia. There are informal photographs of Bernhard from childhood onwards, gifts and artwork from friends and students, personal effects, awards, and some audio and visual materials. Of note are a complete manuscript and several drafts of The Eye Beyond, an unpublished book  Bernhard began in the 1960s. It provides insight into her teaching methodologies and general philosophy of art. Also included are props and found objects used in teaching and still-life photography, including the cow skull with imbedded rosary pictured in her well-known Skull and Rosary (1945), dating from her days as a farmhand on the Pitney Farm in Mendham, N.J., during World War II.

For information about using the papers, contact  The collection is stored offsite. Please consult with the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections about having materials recalled to Firestone Library, a process that normally takes 48–72 hours notice. Bernhard’s working library is in the Rare Books Division. For information about the Ruth Bernhard Archive at the Princeton University Art Museum, contact Katherine A. Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography, at


Ruth Bernhard, 1957


Props for Skull and Rosary (1945)