They have been with us through it all. They protected us from monsters under the bed and cuddled with us when we were afraid of thunderstorms. They were our best friend and we vowed that nothing would ever separate us.
We are, of course, talking about our teddy bears and other stuffed companions, that over the years, dealt with our abuses of love and affection as we navigated the journey of growing up and discovering the world and ourselves. But what happened to them?
If your teddy is currently in storage at your parents' house, you may feel like digging him (or her) out after seeing the new book from Irish photographer Mark Nixon. As the photographer himself states, these childhood friends have been "loved to bits."
Nixon's Much Loved, released last month through Abrams Image Publishing, displays tattered teddies with a small story about them. The 65 portraits illicit a wide form of reactions from euphoric awing to scoffing and squirming disgust. The ages of the teddy bears range from a few months to some being decades old (the oldest is about 104 years old). There are even celebrity bears belonging to the likes of U2's Bono and Irish radio personality Gerry Ryan.
SF Weekly had the chance to talk with Nixon, who lives in Dublin, about his inspiration of the project, deep, metaphorical interpretations of these images, and the entire culture and childhood importance of the teddy bear. Scroll through the interview to see a sampling of the photos.
What was the inspiration for this project?
I photograph a lot of families and children in my studio in Dublin, which has a nice gallery space, and I thought it might make a good exhibition. I got the idea from watching my son, Calum. I was struck by how attached he was to his Peter Rabbit, the way he buried his nose in it while sucking his thumb. I remembered having similar childhood feelings about my own panda. And so, I organized Teddy Day at my studio, where adults and children brought in their teddies and I photographed them.
Why stuffed teddy companions in particular? Why not do favorite toys? Would it be because signs of use and affection wouldn't be as visible?
It's the human-like characteristics that appealed to me as a portrait photographer -- I looked on them as portrait subjects. Also the dog or cat type ones didn't really work, as they are four legged and didn't suit the way I was shooting these.
What kind of photographer are you? Do you categorize yourself as a portrait photographer?
Yes, I'm a portrait photographer or people photographer.
The teddy bear is a fairly recent creation. It was created in the beginning of the 20th century and named after U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. It seems that they are a permanent staple of any child's bedroom and are an important part of our Western culture. Why is that? Also, what is the importance of the teddy bear, in your opinion?
It's not just Western phenomenon, it's worldwide. My original MuchLoved project went viral and was featured on sites from China to Peru, Iceland to Russia and all points in between. There's something really primal about a cuddly toy. It's the first affectionate object a child clings to after their mother. A teddy bear has that familiar smell, shape and the feel of fabric that remind us of a comforting time from childhood.
As we grow up, adults will become ashamed of keeping their stuffed companion because it might resemble an obstacle toward a full initiation to adulthood. Do you think your project changes this by having people display their teddies in a physical manifestation with pride?
I think maybe yes. I am getting lots of emails from people thanking me for showcasing this and sending me photos and stories of their bears. Certainly it's mostly women, as women are not afraid to show their softer sides, but some men too. Many have said the book/project made them feel like they weren't alone or mad to have these feelings towards their teddies.
I'm sure lots of people want to bust their fluffy friends out of the shadows to have their portrait taken by you. How do you go about selecting your picture perfect candidates?
I found it impossible to say no to any of them, as it's a bit like telling them their baby isn't beautiful enough to be photographed. So, I shot every one that came to me. It was then a very difficult job to select the 65 for the book, but this was done by eliminating similar looking bears and similar stories, but it was very tough. At the moment the only bears I am photographing are for private commissions.
These cotton creations have been through a lot of handling! Some more than others, as evidenced by your book. Did you feel it important to highlight different ages in teddies and also the various states they are all in?
I liked the more "loved" ones. I found them much more interesting to photograph.
What I found very curious about the portrait series is that the owners are not featured. Why is that? Are they relevant to the image? Would it diminish the power of the photographs? I feel that you are almost conveying that these bears and other animals are their own, almost human being. Would that be correct or would you like to elaborate on this point?
I approached each shoot as I would a portrait shoot: there was a beginning, a middle and an end. I felt there was a dialog. I felt they told me how they wanted to be photographed. Ultimately they are portraits of the bears themselves. I did bring some of the owners in at a later date and photographed them with their bears for a German magazine and it was a good way to see the scale of some of the bears. This is why I included their heights in the book.
Also, another thing to note is the lighting in the shots. It feels neutral and it isn't very euphoric nor does it glorify these objects of love. It almost looks like they have an autopsy quality. Was this done on purpose so that each viewer can take away whatever feeling the bear generates in the viewer, whether it be feelings of longing or horror? Maybe I'm reading too much into it?
Yes, I think that's a good observation.
The photographer I admire the most is Irving Penn. His portrait work, from the 1940s and 1950s especially, made me want to become a photographer.
With his still-life work, I loved the alchemy of his Street Material series, how he could take works of trash and cigarette butts off the street, photograph them, and turn them into pieces of art. The idea of making an everyday object, something so familiar that it's invisible, become visible again appealed to me.
What are some of the reactions you get from people participating or viewing your work?
Everything from horror to total love. Most are very positive. It's quite funny to read some comments on some of the online features.
Check out the comments out 114 of them on The Daily Mail. I think they say more about the people making the comments. For example, "These are disgusting, they are full of germs, I need a shower!" That kind of thing.
I feel very close to all of the bears after photographing them and hearing their owners stories, so I always defend them and explain to someone who thinks certain ones are creepy, like Gerry the Giraffe, that the little girl who owns it held it so tenderly when she came in with it and would hardly let go of him long enough for me to photograph him.
Why has your photo series been so popular and resonated with people all over the world? Could it be new films like the Toy Story franchise have successfully tapped into our childhood past or is it the craving of simplified times? Again, maybe I'm analyzing this too much?
There's something really primal about a cuddly toy. It's the first affectionate object a child clings to after their mother. A teddy bear has that familiar smell, shape and the feel of fabric that remind us of a comforting time from childhood.
Which ones are your personal favorites? Besides the one of your son, of course
My favorite one is One Eyed Ted / Aloysius.
It belonged to Gerry Ryan, who had a radio show here in Ireland. He told such brilliant stories about his life and family. He could be infuriating too, I'd be shouting at the radio. I listened to him for 22 years and felt like I knew him like a best friend. He lived just round the corner from my studio and I always thought I'd photograph him and we'd become friendly. He died suddenly a couple of years ago, the whole country was in shock.
So after I photographed his, I felt like this was a real project and it spurred me on.
I still have my own teddy bear from growing up. What do I have to do so he can get a close up with you and your camera?
Well, I'm taking private commissions, so you could send your teddy to me, or organize a bunch of people who want theirs photographed too and I'll come over.
I see that you have occasional showings and studio sessions in New York and Los Angeles. Why not San Francisco?
I would love to come to San Francisco to photograph some much loved teddies. All I need are enough people who would like an art print to make it worth my while. I was just there on the way to Burning Man, what a great city.
What's next? Will you continue with the Much Loved project or do you have other plans?
I'm thinking of several things at the minute, but they are still fermenting.
Where can readers view your project and other endeavors?
What's been your favorite part of the whole project?
Every step of the journey has been so enjoyable. Just as I think, that's it, it's over, done, something new and unexpected happens, like Abrams emailing to ask if they can make a book of it.
Why was this important to publish?
In the scheme of things, I don't think it is important, but it's a quiet little thing waiting for those who would love it, to discover it and little things like that, that touch your heart that make life more meaningful.