Bernhard studied art history and typography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin before moving to New York to join her father.She began teaching on an ongoing basis at the University of California in 1958, while also giving lectures, classes and workshops all over the United StatesIn 1927 Bernhard moved to New York City, where her father was already living. She worked as an assistant to Ralph Steiner in Delineator magazine, but he terminated her employment for indifferent performance. She used her severance pay to finance her own photographic equipment. By the late-1920s, while living in Manhattan, Bernhard was heavily involved in the lesbian sub-culture of the artistic community, becoming friends with photographer Berenice Abbott and her lover, critic Elizabeth McCausland. She wrote about her "bisexual escapades" in her memoir. In 1934 Bernhard began photographing women in the nude.It would be this art form for which she would eventually become best known. In 1935, she chanced to meet Edward Weston on the beach in Santa Monica. She would later say;
" I was unprepared for the experience of seeing his pictures for the first time. It was overwhelming. It was lightning in the darkness...here before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible—an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography"
Bernhard was so inspired by Weston’s work that, after meeting him in 1935, she moved to California (where he lived). In 1939, Bernhard moved back to New York for eight years, during which time she met photographer Alfred Stieglitz
Most of Bernhard's work is studio-based, ranging from simple still lifes to complex nudes. In the 1940s she worked with the conchologist Jean Schwengel.She worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, though there are rumours that she had done some color work as well. She also is known for her lesbian themed works, most notably Two Forms (1962). In that work, a black woman and a white woman who were real-life lovers are featured with their nude bodies pressed against one another.