Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Bernhard, Ruth
Ruth Bernhard Papers
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1910s-2013 (mostly 1938-2006)
79 boxes and 61.7 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1-79


Correspondence, personal and business files, publicity materials, drafts, photography props, teaching materials, appointment books, and memorabilia of Ruth Bernhard (1905-2006), a German-born American photographer and teacher, active in the United States from the late 1920s through the early 2000s, best known for her complex black-and-white still lifes and classical photographs of the female nude. The papers contain professional correspondence and files, personal correspondence with friends and students, a small amount of photographic work and writings, some drafts and proofs for publications, publicity folios, exhibition catalogs and announcements, posters, props used for still life photography and teaching, planners, and a large collection of memorabilia, including snapshots of Bernhard, collected fine art photographs and artwork by others, photograph albums, gifts, personal effects, awards, and some audio and visual materials.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

This collection documents over seventy years of Ruth Bernhard's life, from her start as a serious photographer in the 1930s, at a time when photography was gaining status as a fine art form, until her death in 2006 at age 101, by which time she was internationally well-known both for her contributions to the field of photography and for her long and successful teaching career. Though some photographs from her early life in Germany are present, as well as occasional materials from her early career, such as photocopies of correspondence with her mentor, Edward Weston, the majority of materials in the collection pertain to Bernhard's activities from the 1960s through the early 2000s.

The papers contain a wide array of materials relevant to Bernhard's personal and professional life, including personal and business correspondence and papers related to her career as a professional photographer and teacher of photography, a small amount of photographic work, some manuscripts and proofs for her published and unpublished books and portfolios, publicity materials, exhibition and auction catalogs and brochures, photography props, teaching materials and hand-outs, appointment books, and a large collection of memorabilia, including snapshots of Bernhard, collected fine art photographs and artwork by others, photograph albums, gifts, personal effects, and awards. Occasional audio and visual materials are also present, including slides, cassette tapes, and VHS tapes documenting various events, awards ceremonies, interviews, and lectures, as well as some kept for personal interest.

Absent from the papers are Bernhard's silver gelatin prints and original negatives, which are held by the Princeton University Art Museum. It should also be noted that Bernhard disposed of many of her 8 x 10" negatives, especially her commercial work, when she stopped photographing in 1976, resulting in the lack of materials related to much of her commercial photography in the papers.

Item description was provided by the Princeton University Art Museum. Though this legacy description deviates substantially from standard archival description practices, it was retained in order to avoid the loss of potentially valuable information. Researchers should keep this in mind when using this description to navigate the collection, referring to series and subseries-level description for a broader summary of contents. It should also be noted that throughout this item description, "Ruth Bernhard" has often been abbreviated as "RB."


The collection is arranged into five major series, with additional subdivisions. Though individual items were often described at the item-level by Art Museum staff, they were not physically or intellectually arranged to the same level of detail. While this legacy description was retained, researchers should note that additional arrangement has not generally been implemented below the series or subseries level.

Collection Creator Biography:

Bernhard, Ruth

Ruth Bernhard was a German-born American photographer best known for her complex black-and-white still lifes and classical photographs of the female nude. Born in Berlin in 1905, Bernhard followed her father, the graphic designer Lucian Bernhard, to New York City in 1927, after two years at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. In New York, Bernhard photographed commercially and independently, while becoming heavily involved with the lesbian subculture of the city's art community. Lifesavers, her first published still life photograph, appeared in Advertising Arts in January, 1931. During her early years in New York, Bernhard also briefly worked for Ralph Steiner at The Delineator magazine and produced the photography for Machine Art, the first exhibition catalog published by the Museum of Modern Art, in 1934. As Bernhard recounts in her memoirs, what would become a life-long study of the female nude began during the shoot for this catalog, when Bernhard asked a friend to pose nude inside of a large industrial stainless steel bowl to make the shot more interesting.

Bernhard met the photographer Edward Weston on a trip to California in 1935, an event which became a major catalyst for her career. Her first solo show was held at the Jake Zeitlin Gallery in Los Angeles in 1936, after which time she frequently traveled between New York, California, and other locations to shoot, including Florida, where she worked with conchologist Jean Schwengel to photograph seashells. After working for the Women's Land Army on a New Jersey farm in support of the war effort in the early 1940s, Bernhard moved to Carmel, California in 1944, and later to San Francisco in 1953, where she became associated with the Modernist West Coast photographers of Group f/64, including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Minor White, and her mentor, Edward Weston.

Working from her San Francisco studio in the 1950s and 1960s, Bernhard produced many of her most iconic images of the female nude, including Classic Torso (1952), In the Box, Horizontal (1962), and Two Forms (1963), which were later included in The Eternal Body, her first photographic monograph of nudes, published in 1986. Bernhard gained widespread recognition as an artist beginning in the 1970s, after her work was included in two major exhibitions, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Women in Photography: A Historical Survey in 1975, and Recollections: Ten Women of Photography, which opened at the International Center of Photography in New York in 1979.

Just as she was coming into her fame, a near-fatal carbon monoxide poisoning incident in the mid-1970s left Bernhard unable to continue taking photographs. She made her last exposure in 1976, of a crushed teapot, though afterwards she continued to produce and sell prints of her earlier work with the help of printers Michael Kenna and Saïd Nuseibeh.

After the incident, teaching became Bernhard's primary activity, and she developed a loyal following of students drawn to her attention to vision and light. Beginning in 1961, Bernhard offered classes privately, as well as for the University of California Extension program, the Ansel Adams workshops in Yosemite, and the John Sexton workshops in Carmel, eventually becoming a highly respected instructor in the photographic medium and offering master classes internationally. Bernhard died in San Francisco in 2006 at age 101.

Collection History


Transferred from the Princeton University Art Museum in 2013 (AM 2014-62). An additional interview with Ruth Bernhard received by the Princeton University Art Museum was transferred in 2016 (AM 2017-20).


Nothing was discarded or transferred in the processing of this collection.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Kelly Bolding in January - February, 2014. Finding aid written by Kelly Bolding in February - March, 2014, using item description provided by Emily McVeigh of the Princeton University Art Museum in 2013. Finding aid updated by Kelly Bolding in 2016

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright and literary rights for materials in this collection that were created by Ruth Bernhard are held by the Trustees of Princeton University. Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, any copyright vested in the donor has passed to The Trustees of Princeton University and researchers do not need to obtain permission, complete any forms, or receive a letter to move forward with use of donor-created materials within the collection. For materials in the collection not created by the donor, or where the material is not an original, the copyright is likely not held by the University. In these instances, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have a question about who owns the copyright for an item, you may request clarification by contacting us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Ruth Bernhard Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1-79