Ruth Bernhard’s “In the Box” by Katie Wong

This photograph by Ruth Bernhard is currently on view in the show Encountering the Floating World: Ukiyo-e and the West at Johnson Museum. The wall text next to the photo draws our attention to framing of the exterior and interior space through the horizontal box. Indeed, the concept of “framing” can be interpreted pictorially. Yet, I would like to bring up how this term can be exemplified in the artist’s contextualization of the subjects. Bernhard’s In the Box – Horizontal is a case in point.

Ruth Bernhard is known for her photographs of female nudes, where sinuous contour lines of female body are often delineated with soft light and shadow. She is interested in forms and regards these portraits as still-life photos. The artist’s own words offer some hints at the rationale behind.

If I have chosen the female form in particular, it is because beauty has been debased and exploited in our sensual twentieth century. We seem to have a need to turn innocent nature into evil ugliness be the twist of the mind. Woman has been target of much that is sordid and cheap, especially in photography. To raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman, has been my mission – the reason for my work. 

Despite the overt display of nakedness, Bernhard manages to avoid the erotic sensuality. Here, the model reclines and extends her languid arm out of the restrictive structure. Bernhard carefully handles the soft illumination to reveal the light white skin of the model. The delicate wash of light on the body evokes sculptural quality as well as serenity. Such ethereal chiaroscuro makes the model, in an elegant and effortless pose, reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture, perhaps, a recumbent Venus de Melo.

It doesn’t matter which classical sculpture you see at fist sight. The pith of the artwork lies in the artist’s ability to turn away from the voluptuous associations with female nudity, and to embrace the timeless beauty of form and shape in the body itself. In other words, Bernhard frames the subject in her unique notion of woman beauty, offering us new lens to look at nudity.

By Katie Wong, Class of 2015


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