John Bernhard is a Swiss American artist, photographer and writer who traveled North America extensively before settling in Houston, Texas in 1980. For more than three decades he has chosen the medium of photography to explore the everyday world from new perspectives, breaking away into different pathways of artistic expression. He continues to devote all of his energy taking photographs and bringing them together to enhance their meaning with visual interplay.
Bernhard was educated at the EPSIC Technical College in Lausanne and at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs de Geneve in Switzerland. He is the author of 9 books among which are: Nudes Metamorphs, Nicaragua, Diptych, Evanescence, Drift, China and his most recent monograph Body Work, a thirty years retrospective of photographs of the Nudes. In 2011 Bernhard’s first non-fiction book, America’s Call, was published by Dog Ear Publishing. In 2013 the french version, L’Appel de L’Amérique, illustrated with 57 color photographs and collages was published by Infolio Edition, Switzerland.
Beginning in 1985 with a solo exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, Bernhard has had more than 30 solo shows, three museum exhibitions, and many collective exhibitions throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Bernhard's photographs are also included in 20 museum’s permanent collection, such as the Denver Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Musée de la Photographie, Belgium, Musée de L’Elysée, Switzerland, Museet for Fotokunst, Denmark, New Mexico Museum of Arts, Pushkin Museum of Art, Russia, Southeast Museum of Photography, Florida, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. His art has been collected by Texas Tech University, International Cultural Center ICASALS, and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. In 2001 is work was exhibited in Body Work curated by Christian Peterson, a 120 year survey of photographs of the nude selected from the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In 2004 his work was exhibited as a retrospective at the Musée des Suisses dans le Monde in Geneva, Switzerland. His children’s portrait series Blue Marble made its debut with a solo exhibition at Rice University, Houston in 2011 and was featured on Artist A Day, and was awarded third prize in the 2014 Prix de la Photographie Paris.
Bernhard’s work has been reviewed in publications such as Communication Arts, Graphis, Photo District New Magazine, The Houston Chronicle, ArtSpeak Magazine, Swiss Review, and has been widely published in such books as Love & Desire by William A. Ewing, (Chronicle Books), Female Contemporary Nude Photography III, (UDYAT), Spain, and Nude Bible, (Tectum Publishers, Belgium).
I always work on themes, I actually keep several on the stove at once. I like to think that I specialize in versatility, it stimulates my creativity and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I like to explore new grounds and I constantly work on ideas, producing essays, photographing people and the female body.
I guess my choice of themes fluctuates between dream and reality, between reflection and emotion and also a bit of fascination with transformation. It is the transformation, transition and change in people, bodies, myself and our environment that I am after. Transformation has always driven my work, from my nude series to the street scenes of Nicaragua and China. Even in my Diptych series, which is a personal visual odyssey, a journal unveiling my photographic interests, an intense curiosity of some moments in my life brought up through the duality of two images.
My photographic work derives from the studio where I photograph the model with controlled strobes mixed with projections of photographs previously taken of elements of the earth. Then, in the early days, in my darkroom I printed the photographs conventionally by hand. This work was then scanned into the computer along with color background textures I found, photographed or painted. Today I still use projections and the same approach, but keep my hands clean from the messy darkroom, I use the computer to add even more layers. The final multi-layered image is printed on museum quality paper using archival inks. I also print on exotic materials like wood or textures that I created. My latest series Displaced is printed with UV cured inks directly to solid and composite metal panels.
Beyond mere Beauty and Eroticism
The color photographs in this series are from my early work dating back from the early 1980’s. These were my exploratory years. I had just arrived in Texas and was seduced by the “American Dream.” I was dreaming then and I am still dreaming. I wanted to bring to the mind’s eye a new representation of the female body. I created images at once surreal and erotically charged, suggesting how the body does indeed turn into a mysterious terrain; a dreamland. This series made its debut at the Millioud Gallery in Houston’s FotoFest, 1994.
"John Bernhard takes the human form and presents it as dreamland. Light, color, and shadow create images resembling the soft curves of flesh. In a color photograph that Bernhard calls “Prairie Fire”, the legs and torso of a reclining female nude are enlivened by brillant orange and yellow hues, as well as interior images of trees and foliage that merge with her pubic hair. the image is at once surreal and erotically charged, suggesting how the body does indeed turn into a misterious terrain when traveled by the kisses and caresses of an ardant lover." From Sydney Gilbert, ARTSPEAK Magazine, New York.
"This award winning image was singled out from a larger body of work for its successful application of color, form, and detail. This image “Prairie Fire” is a Mother-heaven as well as a Mother-earth for me, and a perfect marriage of second, third, and fourth dimensions." From Andy Reisberg in his 1995 Juror’s statement address at the Texas Photographic Society, Austin, Texas.
Date: 1978 -1980 Archival print and color print Edition: 10 Size 14x11 / 40x30 (inches)
The Phantasm of the Transformation
This series emerged from a commercial assignment when I was projecting images on a white cylinder. The result pleased me so much that I decided to try this new technique on a female body. I chose elements of the earth as my main overlay and started searching for a transformation. We all go through transformations whether we are conscious of it or not. When the realization gets right in your face, it becomes intriguing and almost scary. That is this emotion that I am seeking. I admit that I am trying to elicit certain mixed emotions, I expect the viewer to have conflicting emotions.
When the viewer’s mind is opened by the conflict of two very different visions held in a single image, the mind works deeper into itself and further along the path of discovery into the common relationship of our mutual transformations: as we change, so does our world, and vice versa. The meaning of the resulting art is ambiguous and takes different forms, people can feel and identify with these images that point beyond themselves and ultimately mirror the contradictions of ourselves.
Date: 1990 -1999 Gelatin silver print and archival print Edition: 10 Size 11x14 / 16x20 / 20x24 (inches)
I believe in a process of collaborating with nature, evolution, passing time and the constant change of our bodies and minds. This series probably evolved from my earliest interest in transformation - my Nudes Metamorphs series - and combined with my Diptych series. It is the ultimate outcome. In some of the images there is a strong diptych feeling in the first and in the last photograph. The photos in between evolve and transform. They mutate or metamorphize and thus present a visual experience of shifting reality. Human bodies pass through the mystique of change. I see a tree or an animal brought to another dimension by the inclusion of the body transformed within, thus expressing a transitional state of being.
Date: 2002 -2004 Archival print Edition: 10 Size 11x14 / 16x20 / 20x24 (inches)
State of the Soul
The Male Nudes Series is an exploration of the status of manhood in today’s particular time with great emphasis on the insecurity of the masculine self-image and psychological state of frustration within the boundaries of everyday life.
Date: 2004 -2005 Gelatin silver print and archival print Edition: 10 Size 11x14 / 16x20 / 20x24 (inches)
The suggestion of altered body.
Born from “Skindream”, a forgotten series, more than 10 years old, mixed with a marriage of other series like “Metamorphs” and “Evanescence”. Its like reawakening a concept and pushing the spark. This conception which was asleep become richer and reached maturity. A research never abandoned, pushed by an incredible desire to explore the intricate interplay and change of the human body within its environment.
There is no limit to my conceptual and creative ingenuity, I arrange colors, objects and textures in layers like paint on canvas. I use superposition and projection to transform the body into an imagery reminiscent of a dream. I also use backgrounds made or found as overlay to the nude bodies. The body breaks free of its own material constraint. It dissolves into nature and metamorphoses into mystic human or abstract forms.
Date: 2005 -20013 Mixed media / acrylic and archival print Edition: 10 Size 11x14 / 16x20 / 20x24 / 20x30 (inches)
In this series MetamorFaces, the transformed portraits are subtle and disturbing. The hybrid portraits appeal or perturb our aesthetic senses as we appreciate the creative potential of the basic elements - water, earth, fire and air. Transformed faces act as a metaphor to our existence where life revolved around the trivialities of outward appearance. The dreamlike quality of each image, however, draws us to look somewhere beyond the single image, and when we consider several of the images as part of a connected whole, we become aware of a primal quality. Witnessing stone, wood and water metamorphoses, we begin to peer further into the abyss of our own existence and realize the commonality of our shared experience.
I am not interested in the way people see themselves. I just want to show the intensity within them through a transformation involving the nature of our world.
Date: 2012 -20014 Archival print on canvas, wood, tile, plexiglass, found material, etc. Edition: 3 Size 11x14 / 20x30 (inches)
Environmental Destruction Through the Eyes of Children
Climate change, pollution, and the way we are treating our planet have become a global issue, and this series is my personal crusade in bringing awareness to it. Once I recognized that we were facing a crisis I wanted to use my photographs to voice my deep sense of concern for the next generation. As a father I strongly believed that I had a moral duty to take action and as an artist I wanted to be a humble catalyst.
The background images of the earth originated from NASA, astronauts took them from the International Space Station. I digitally enhanced these images and superimposed portraits of children from around the world that I photographed over the years. I wanted to merge their innocent faces into these perilous landscapes.
In a world fraught with war, pollution, and the danger of environmental destruction, I hope that this Blue Marble series will serve as a reckoning and an awakening for the coming time.
Date: 2011 -2012 Archival ink on torn cotton rag paper (recycled wood frame optional) Edition: 3 Size 30x20 / 60x40 (inches)
A work made up of two matching parts
I was ransacking through my library files when I came across these two photographs (plate 24) and was struck by their similarities. Both have the arms up, leaving the right hands in the frame and placing the subject slightly to the left. I wondered why I was prompted to take these photos, and I began the mission of looking through the entire body of my work. I was so excited to find that different subjects were approached using similar compositions and moods that I pursued my search for more than three years.
I wanted to convey a feeling of discovery and gratification but realized that some of the photographs gave a sense of tension as if the subjects were in opposition. The interaction of the two images often produces ambiguous feelings. In the creation of an image, I believe that we react in a field of association with repetitions, analogies and duplicities. In any given situation - from time to time, place to place, and subject to subject - the image maker will subconsciously encounter similar approaches. Intuitive action brings the affinity of the subject matter to a new level of significance. This series of diptychs constitutes an excellent demonstration of the use of repetition in idea or in form when moods are analogous.
Date: 2003 Archival print Edition: 10 Size 16x20 (inches)
dis·place [dis-pleys] verb (used with object), dis·placed, dis·plac·ing.
1. to compel (a person or persons) to leave home, country, etc. 2. to move or put out of the usual or proper place.
3. to take the place of; replace; supplant: Fiction displaces fact. 4. to remove from a position, office, or dignity.
5. Obsolete. to rid oneself of. 6. Job loss, loss of the manufacturing industry
In this series, Displaced, I wanted to bring to attention not merely the homeless case but the death of american manufacturing. The loss of the manufacturing industry manifests itself most clearly in job losses. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, fewer than ten percent of American workers are now employed in manufacturing, and as a consequence, we are now manufacturing homelessness.
In a collage process, I overlaid photographs of old manufacturing plants over faces of homeless men, which I photographed throughout the U.S. The final work is printed with archival Uv cured ink directly on metal sheets.
Date: 2012 -2014 UV curable archival inks on metal Edition: 5 Size 30x30 (inches)