Five Things I Learned From Ruth Bernhard

Ruth Bernhard by Abe Aronow, 1985

Ruth Bernhard by Abe Aronow, 1985

The days of modernist photography are gone, as is the legendary Ruth Bernhard, but the wisdom she imparted in a small lecture I attended in San Francisco, March, 20, 1997 still resonates with me, ten years after her death.  I found my yellow legal pad lecture notes stapled together in the back of a drawer as I searched for any-photo-thing to write about that is light, encouraging and uplifting.  Bernhard would have been ninety-two years old at the time of said lecture, she could have been thirty-five, her vitality was boundless and her passion for art uncontained.

Bernhard opened her lecture using examples from The Eternal Body as she proclaimed, “The nude is something you cannot teach,” although we all gathered in the classroom hoping she would teach us how.  She went on to explain that she sat quietly in her studio photographing things and women, to make them more beautiful than they looked in life.  She created timeless images in her San Francisco studio with a mirror, seventy-five watt bulbs and black drapery.  She wanted to photograph women with great respect, differently than men who had done it lustfully.  With an organically simplistic approach to the female human form, Ruth did make images that elevate the nude and hold it in a place of photographic history undisturbed, viable, fresh and harmonious.

Nude in a Box, Ruth Bernhard

Nude in a Box, Ruth Bernhard

I haven’t always practiced the things that I learned from Ruth that evening, but finding the notes from her lecture ten years later makes me more determined to and I can hopefully channel her fortitude if only through this writing. 

1.   If it speaks to you, do it!  Bernhard practically yelled these words during the lecture as the passion dripped from her aged fingertips and she pointed to individuals around the room.  It was if she believed in us and was passing along her resilient tenacious spirited baton for us to join the photographic art race.  But honestly, it can be difficult to follow the things that speak to you no matter how loudly they shout.  It takes effort, time, intuition, financial resources, tenacity, resilience, thick skin and energy to name a few. 

Two Leaves, Ruth Bernhard

Two Leaves, Ruth Bernhard

So where does one find these prerequisites for “doing it” if one doesn’t naturally possess them?  I would suggest finding a mentor or a friendly critique group that can help give you a boost when you need it.  Write down the project idea, live with it for a bit, brainstorm on ways you could approach it, and research others that have worked with a similar topic.  You may need to think about timing of your life and the project.  Is it realistic? If it isn’t now, it may be later through grant funding or time off, but don’t throw out the idea.  Finally, pick up the camera and shoot without being too critical of yourself.  Carve out the time and make the first images, print them and live with them for a while before you discount the project.  Get feedback from others.  Let it gestate and pick up the camera again.

2.  If something tells me to do something, I always say yes.  I have thought about this advice many times over the years, but I have let Ruth down by saying“no” because I was afraid.  Afraid I couldn’t pull it off, take the right photograph, didn’t have the right equipment, couldn’t measure up, but mostly, afraid of failure.

Where does fear get you?  It gets you nowhere; it only keeps you in the same place you’ve always been.  It can also create devastating feelings of regret, remorse and missed opportunities.  Ultimately, it can become a pattern and the reason why you continue to say “no” and never reach your goals.  By saying “yes,” you do open up yourself to failure, but you also open yourself up to success and eventually, a greater ability to continue to say “yes.” 

Creation, 1936, Ruth Bernhard

Creation, 1936, Ruth Bernhard

3.  You have to invent the conditions that are right for you.  I had unknowingly followed Ruth’s third piece of advice without even thinking about it.  After I had a child, my long days in the darkroom were gone.  In order to keep working, I had to change my working style.  And I did.  I scanned my work, shot digitally and worked on the files during naptime, mother’s morning out, and any opportunity when I had a reprieve from mothering. 

What is it that is preventing you from doing the work?  Can you simplify the project?  Can you create a schedule that accommodates it?  Don’t mistakenly believe that the stars will align and you can put all your time and effort into a project when things are perfect.  Create where you are by making a working environment that suits your life and your schedule. 

In the Wave, Ruth Bernhard

In the Wave, Ruth Bernhard

4.  To be able to photograph a is a tremendous privilege.  I really never thought of being able to photograph as a privilege, but it is, undoubtedly.  I recall the strangers I’ve met, the places I’ve encountered, and the wealth of memories I’ve collected in unlikely places by the need to explore with my camera. These opportunities have enriched my life, given me experiences otherwise I never would have had and defined a curiosity within me that continues in my life.  My photographic encounters are part of my memory which, in turn, makes me grateful for the experiences of having traveled a slightly different path, albeit one with a camera.

Lifesavers, Ruth Bernhard

Lifesavers, Ruth Bernhard

5.    Never talk yourself out of what excites you.  It is hard to sustain excitement and passion, especially when self-doubt sets in.  Once you’ve seen your preliminary bad images and the project seems useless, how does one go on?  How do you find the excitement again to carry on?  First, turn off the voice in your head that may be your father telling you to do something more than a hobby with your life.  Sorry, that is my father’s voice.  The point is, that wrestling with the voices of self-doubt is unavoidable, but actually giving into them creates paralysis.  Don’t be paralyzed.  If the passion for a project fades, realize that it will return.  Understand that you must do just as Hemingway suggests regarding creative blocks in A Moveable Feast, “Just write the one sentence you know to be true.”  In this case, just pick up the camera, hold your breath and take the one photograph you know to be true.  If that doesn’t work, do it again.

“Photograph from your heart, not your mind.”  Ruth Bernhard, San Francisco, March, 20, 1997