Vision Through A Camera Lens

A FEW years ago, Ruth Bernhard celebrated her 80th birthday by climbing Mt. Fuji. She has retained a child-like curiosity and wonder about life, and is constantly being surprised by new discoveries. She has devoted the past 50 years to photographing these revelations - of both the visible and invisible world. And in doing so, she has found the commonplace to be amazing. There is growing appreciation for Bernhard's contribution as one of the premier fine-art photographers of this century. Her images have been exhibited in major museums and galleries throughout the world. Her latest book, ``The Eternal Body,'' is a monograph of classic female forms. And a videotape about her life and career, ``Illuminations,'' was recently released. Her images and ideas continue to inspire a new generation of photographers, and she is in constant demand as a teacher and speaker.

We discussed her life and art as we sat in the bay window of her Victorian flat in San Francisco. Light streamed into the room, which was lined in photographs and filled with natural objects that she has collected to observe, enjoy, and sometimes photograph.

How did you come to be a fine- art photographer?

I had a friend who needed money to go to a psychiatrist to find out why his dog tore up his apartment if he arrived home after midnight. I gave him $90, and in exchange he gave me his view camera. I started taking pictures of things I enjoyed, and found that people responded to my work. Within a short time I was making a living at photography, but it had no real value to me. When I met Edward Weston in 1935, my estimation of photography changed. His work touched me profoundly, and I suddenly realized that photography could be art. This gave me respect for my craft, and I approached it with new appreciation for its potential.

Photography is often regarded as a mechanical process that has little relation to creativity. What enables you to reveal your vision through photography?

It's a miracle that a photographer's intensity and understanding are able to transcend the camera. The camera is a mechanical instrument, but those who know how to use it can make it dance.

If you buy a Stradivarius and don't know how to play it, you just fiddle. The quality of the music comes from the person who is using the instrument. It requires feeling and mastery of the instrument to express one's vision.

You're very aware of everything around you - from the obvious to the incidental. How do you decide what to photograph?

I respond to those things that speak to me. The process is entirely intuitive. I follow my inspiration and do things for my own pleasure. The pictures make themselves with my help. They are gifts ... revelations.

What goes into making a photograph?

The circumstances have to be just right, and the light must expose what I want to reveal. I make only one negative when photographing a subject. The moment of exposure is a result of rejecting all other possibilities. It takes me many hours to make a photograph - I don't make snapshots. I consider making an image a tremendous privilege. When I look at a subject, it becomes something entirely different and always amazes me. I work hard to capture this.

How do you know if a photograph is successful?

If you as a viewer see something that you could not have possibly imagined seeing, then I have succeeded. The viewer's perception is part of the effect. Photography is akin to poetry, which uses the fewest words to speak of the most profound things. A great photograph should touch you in a way that you can never forget. I don't always accomplish this, but I always hope to.

You continue to be actively involved in teaching photography. What do you try to impart to your students?

I encourage them to discover what is important to them. The only things that should appear in their photographs are what they love and care about. This way they can bring out their own vision of life. I consider myself a gardener who doesn't change what is there but nourishes and cultivates it - and does a lot of weeding. A person cannot learn to be a photographer, he can only cultivate what he already has. I try to make people aware that they have something very precious to cultivate.

What other photographers do you admire?

I am moved by various photographers - Dorthea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jerry Ulesmann, and Olivia Parker to name a few. Each photographer that I respond to makes me feel tall - instead of 5 feet I grow to 6 feet 8 inches.

What is it about your work that people find appealing?

I have a great affection for everything that I photograph, and I try to make visible what I see. Whether working with a human figure or a still life, I'm deeply aware of my spiritual connection with it. This gives my photographs a dimension that people respond to. If people like my work, it means they're responding to me - not just the visual images. My photographs are the visible expressions of my feeling about life.

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