The Bear and His Humans
‘Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action.’
(Ian Fleming, Goldfinger)
Legend has it that the analytical principle above is part of the Moscow Rules, a set of guidelines for Cold War spies. As it happens, this same principle seems to guide the practice of collector Jean-Marie Donat: when, in his peregrinations, he finds a first image that intrigues him (content, deliberate or accidental composition, camera set-up…), he doesn’t take it. Not everything can be part of a collection. When he finds a second image in which the same element appears, he buys it. You never know. But, with the third photograph, the collection begins in earnest. Sometimes he must wait for years to find a third specimen for his collection. For others, like Teddybär, things happen quickly. To be photographed with a polar bear, apparently, was a genuine craze in pre-war Germany and, indeed, up to the 1970s.
While astonishment may be the initial spark for a collection and similarity the entrance criterion for photographs, it is not the likeness between the images that creates their lasting interest. Each photograph in Teddybär shows a human being in a bear costume. Easily said. That is not the point of interest. After the first surprise when we discover that a photograph, though singular, is not unique, but rather belongs to a type of image all showing the same subject, it is difference that intrigues us.
More than multiplication, it is the multiplicity of bears and ‘clients’ that holds the attention. Multiplicity of the bear – for, symbolically, the bear seems one – or bears – for different bear-men embody him differently. The collection shows us a bear – fantastic or realistic, friendly or frightening – oh, often frightening! – toy or animal, involved or blasé, gaping-mawed and toothy, freshly laundered or seedy, charming or crazy. The same is true – or nearly – of ‘his’ humans. Sometimes, infrequently, the photograph itself attracts the attention. Looking at it without the burden of cultural frontiers, we find, in this low art corpus, elements of the most sophisticated high art image structuring. Beyond the type of bear, the relationships formed during the shot, and rare, unexpected framings, it is our own perception of these photographs that must be examined. What does our spontaneous way of looking at these images teach us about our gaze? In short, this is an opportunity to perform an analysis, rudimentary as it may be, of how we see.
It was Karl’s idea. I don’t know where he got it. It was winter. It had been weeks since we’d had any building work. He showed up at my place, all excited, saying I absolutely had to come, he’d had a brilliant idea that would let us live like kings that winter. He began to explain as I put on my coat: ‘People need a reason to take a photograph’, he said. ‘And us, we’re going to give them one…’
A photographer had given him an old camera in exchange for some work a few years back. But, as he had no money for film, he didn’t use it much. It was when he saw a holiday photo that the idea came to him. It was of his cousin with her husband and child on a big wicker beach chair. Between them was a polar bear, just as though it were one of the family. Showing me the photo, he repeated his idea: ‘People need a reason to have their picture taken, and a bear is a damn good reason.’ In the next room I found my ‘kit’. It was empty, limp, flapping, hairy. For years it would be my work outfit. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was probably a carnival costume. It smelled of mothballs. He invited me to put it on.
The idea was simple. We’d offer to take pictures of tourists with the bear. They could collect their photos at the end of the day. Karl and I would split the takings.
No type of space seems to have been entirely free of these bears. But the town, the seaside, and the mountain seem to have been particularly likely spots to encounter them. A few photographs also show interiors, forests, and parks. The photographs are not all from the same period. Depending on contextual information (clothing, hairstyles, uniforms) and paratexts (inscriptions on the back, dedications), we may say that the photographs were taken between the 1920s and the 1970s in Germany. In short, this bear bestrides fifty years of German history.
We began at the village slope where we had learned to ski. As soon as they saw us, people nudged each other and turned around. Young women burst out laughing. Once the bear had been noticed, Karl began his hawking: ‘Ladies, gents, who wants a photograph?’ Fortunately, he was the one who talked. I was the bear. A bear can’t talk. Well, later on, I did meet talking bears. I didn’t think much of that. And I was shy. It suited me to say nothing, behind my gaping bear muzzle. And then, I think that was more reassuring. A bear, being a bear, is always that bit intimidating. Although, me, I was all right. I was, so to speak, a house bear. Perhaps that was why people seemed to think they could do just as they pleased with me. Especially at the beginning. I was a well-trained bear. One that danced when he was told. Those spoiled misses, our trippers, didn’t they make me sweat. You’d think paying for a photo entitled them to the lot. They pulled me down on my knees by my fake muzzle, smacked me on the back or the bottom, squeezed their bosoms against me and stuck their hands in my fur… In short: from the very first day, I loved being a bear.
Most of our shots are relatively direct, frontal. The bear is their central subject or part of it. And yet he holds our attention only for a relatively brief moment. The photographs showing nothing but bears lack interest. What is most intriguing is what happens around them, the different ways of integrating or avoiding them. Each photograph involves a minimal staging with various possible scenarios: the bear may join us as one of our own or remain at a certain distance. He may be behind us, towering over us or supporting us. We can walk towards the camera with him or hold for a group photo. He can put his paw on our shoulder or hold our hand. We can look at him or look at the camera. He can gaze at us or look elsewhere. He can be our friend in Berlin. He can frighten us as though we were children. We can mistrust him, even attack him, as the symbol of Russia. Even the ways of ignoring him are significant. In a certain photo we see, for example, an amused expression showing that the bear has been seen. And yet, he is not officially the subject of the photograph. In another, the photo captures not only those who are posing, but a fifth person who looks away – on purpose? – to do something else (roll a cigarette?).
It didn’t matter what happened under my disguise. As a bear, I always had the same expression. With time, I knew the freedom of being a bear. First, I began to growl. Then I chased people to frighten them. With my bulky costume, I couldn’t match their pace. It made them laugh. Karl pretended to catch me. One day he even took a stick he’d found along the road and poked me along. I didn’t much like that. I could almost have bitten him.
When people ignored me or Karl shouted at me, I writhed and whimpered. I’ve never known if that’s really what a bear does. But no matter. People weren’t there for a class on bears. A bit of excitement, a bit of a laugh, a bit of surprise, a different sort of holiday souvenir. That’s all they wanted. And whether a bear grizzles or not, who cares? As it happened, my fake sadness often got me a real cuddle.
4. The Bear in Detail
Those photographs where the bear does not seem to be the central subject are particularly striking: the bear then constitutes a breach and thus becomes tellable. He is an event for whoever looks at the photograph. Must he not have been an event for whoever took it? Why is the bear peripheral? Unlike a photograph of which the bear is the main subject, a picture where the bear is a detail is itself an event and poses a question. The viewer cannot help questioning the photographer’s intention. Did the bear escape, as the murder escaped the photographer in Blow Up (without escaping his camera)? Did he find it ridiculous to take a photo with, but could he not resist taking a photo of the bear? Or are we the victims of a flawed perspective? After all, Daniel Arasse tells us that ‘if a detail is seen, it does not need to have been made’. This, in Le Détail. Pour une histoire rapprochée de la peinture. And it seems to me that it is with those photos that we come closest to painting. They recall the Mannerist paintings in which Jesus, a penitent saint, or the liberation of Saint Peter by the angel have become details both geometrically (far from the centre) and perceptually (barely visible), without, however, losing their importance (culturally). They are like our bears: once discovered, they cannot be other than the subject of the image.
And what of that snapshot where a shadow reveals that the bear is present, out of frame, beside the photographer, but not directly shown? There again, the (doubtless unconscious) reference cannot be ignored. The image reverses perspective like the Consummatum est of Jean-Léon Gérôme, in which painting the Crucifixion is present only as a shadow. And yet, while we attribute this masterstroke in painting to Gérôme, the photograph of a bear’s shadow evokes the finder of the photograph rather than its photographer: it is to the collector that we tip our hats. Well seen!
And yet, the photograph came first. Museum- quality painting or vernacular photograph: the mannerisms are the same. We return to Roland Barthes’s insight: structural analysis does not distinguish between high and low.
The bear evokes smiles from pre-war German soldiers as it does from post-war American G.I.s – this arouses a certain discomfort. But are their smiles in fact identical? Not really, for how one places (oneself), even in front of a camera, is culturally determined. What classical rhetoricians and Renaissance painters called decorum – behaving according to one’s role and social rank – still holds good. German soldiers and American soldiers are no less dissimilar in the presence of the bear than are rich Northern intellectuals and Southern labourers. And the bear is not the same with them.
With time, I learned how to behave with different holidaymakers. The bear was a sort of character reader. He showed how seriously people took themselves. With some, it was best to keep your distance, acting submissive to flatter their dream of being a fearless explorer. Others, on the contrary, wanted to play. This could go as far as a snowball fight. I was careful not to act too human. The more I acted the bear, the less I could be blamed. As a bear, I allowed myself to do things that would have got me slapped or worse if I had done them as a man. Who would get angry at a bear? It would be silly. And the reverse was true as well: I remember wandering hands and roguish looks! And the husband right there laughing. If his wife had gone half as far with a strange man, he would have given her a good hiding. But this was different. It was a bear. Who would get angry over a bear? Even great uniformed Nazis always ended up laughing. Overall, during my time as a bear, I only saw people’s better side.
5. To see seeing
The trace of sensuality one senses on the face of that young woman, a governess perhaps, posing with the bear and a little girl – is it really there, or is it the projection of a male gaze (mine)? One remembers Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, a novel in which the narrator describes most scenes from the perspective of a little girl who sometimes fails to understand the nature of the meetings she observes. The adult reader thus has the pleasure of understanding more than the protagonists and apprehending the erotic encounter in what the young girl describes as a struggle. And doesn’t seeing more than the protagonists represent a good part of the joy experienced by the collector of amateur photographs? It is the pleasure of Barthes’s punctum, that of seeing more in a photograph than the photographer put there. So, in group photographs, the bear’s attention is apparent. He doesn’t pose with everyone in the same way. He has his favourites in each picture.
We went over well with children too. Some would even cry to have their photograph taken with me. For others, it was the fathers who pushed them to pose. It was a sort of challenge, and they needed all their courage to approach me. So I’d hold very still for them. They’d get right next to me, holding themselves tall for the camera, but as soon as the photo was taken they’d run off. The very best was class photos with the bear. That gave us twenty photos at a time. We spent the rest of the day making prints.
6. Ways of Being a Bear
Rakish bear, cartoon bear, toothy bear, jolly bear, picnic bear, bohemian bear, homeless bear, giant bear, hunter bear, grandfatherly bear, beach bear, man-eating bear, hunted bear, military bear, wet bear, accessory bear, wooed bear, devil-may-care bear, party bear, solitary bear, teddy bear, terrifying bear, carnival bear, operetta bear, side-splitting bear, saintly bear, unhealthy bear, soused bear, folkloric bear, group bear, chained bear, bear with Christ Child, bear with Virgin, Mickey Mouse-bear.
7. Kuleshov Bear
The Kuleshov Effect, after Lev Kuleshov, describes a cognitive bias observed in a series of experiments by the Russian filmmaker and theorist in 1922. The director demonstrated that the neutral expression on an actor’s face was perceived differently by viewers depending on the editing of the film in which it appeared. The same expression was interpreted as sadness, hunger, or lust, depending on whether the film montage suggested that the object seen by the protagonist was a corpse, a meal, or an attractive young woman.
The same would appear to hold true for the bear. We interpret his expression according to the expressions and actions of those around him. The same expression may thus appear to us, for example, as desire or kindliness, depending on the context. The Kuleshov Effect must exist not only in time (when one shot follows another), but also in space (when two elements are juxtaposed).
Sometimes it was odd. I would see people again, that night or another day. I’d feel I’d had a fine time with them, we’d had a laugh and all. But they, of course, didn’t remember anything. They didn’t know me. In the beginning, I wanted to explain that I had been the bear. But they wouldn’t believe me, or it put them out. So I stopped. I resigned myself to leading a sort of double life. Days, I was a bear. Nights, I spent the money I’d earned. We carried on for at least five or six winters. Then came the war. We took it up again afterwards, for a bit. But it wasn’t so easy. There was less money even than before, and more competition. Other photographers had taken it up and sometimes, in the same town, you’d have four or five bears fighting over tourists. It got to be a bother for them, more than anything else.
8. Commercial Bears
Berlin Bear, trade fair bear (1950), seaside bear, Ems Kränchen bear, Christmas bear (n.d.), Christmas bear (1972), operetta bear (Kaiserwalzer), ice bear (Eisrevue), zoo bear (Berlin).
9. Assorted Titles
Some pictures demand a title.
Others can do without.
Two Young Soldiers with White Bear and Flower
Something subterranean seems to be emerging in this photograph, as in many others. Relationships are ambiguous and raise questions: Why these enigmatic smiles? What is the role of the flower? Do the young men know the bear? Are their hands touching involuntarily?
Sad Young Girl with Bear
The girl’s eyes seem almost transparent, liquid. Has she wept? Is she ill? I imagine that she is in a clinic for consumptive children. The bear comes by to cheer them up.
Bear and Hitlermädchen
A young girl with flawless braids, young, blonde, sure of herself, a swastika ornamenting her gymslip. The perfect incarnation of Hitlerian youth, innocent, joyful, naïve. The bear, pure white, all smiles, shows his great sharp teeth, his tongue. He almost looks real. If we didn’t know it was impossible, we’d say he was slavering.
10. By Way of Conclusion
Discontinuous, approaching its subject from different angles, this article is hardly more than an invitation to play, to let yourself be intrigued, to continue to explore, to find your own hobbyhorses, your pet subjects, to imagine lives, to make distinctions, to find titles, to laugh at expressions, to make up stories… In short: these images are yours now.
Klaus Speidel is an artist and philosopher. He is German and has studied philosophy and art history in Munich and Paris. Winner of the 2015 Aica Prize for Art Criticism, he has curated two exhibitions, Recouvrements in 2014 and De l’écriture de l’écriture in 2015. His interests include storytelling through image, reception aesthetics, minimalist drawing, the strinking image, discontinuous writing, and nonlinear thought. He has published extensively – theoretical texts, art criticism, and catalogue texts – in France and abroad.