One of the strangest things that I have encountered recently is an exhibition of mid-2oth century polar bear pictures from Germany. Collector Jean-Marie Donat has amassed hundreds of German photographs from 1920-1960 showing people posing for pictures with a polar bear (or rather, a person in a polar bear suit). The photographs include both formal and everyday occasions, and include schoolchildren, holidaymakers, soldiers and even pets.
Polar bears pop up in children’s portraits:
…at the beach:
…and even at weddings (if you click on the picture to see a bigger version, you’ll see that the bear has dressed for the occasion with a top hat):
One of the oddest things (for me) is the sense of normality that pervades these pictures. They are just ordinary snaps, of the sort that you might take on holiday or to mark a celebration … except that these pictures also have a polar bear in them! None of the people in the pictures seems fazed by this fact – as far as they are concerned, the bear is just another person in the scene.
I have no idea what sparked this particular photographic trend. One article hints that it may be related to Germany’s history of Arctic exploration, and its troubled relationship with Russia before and during the Second World War. Another article (in German) traces it back to tourist photos taken at beaches and funfairs in the 1930s: the incongruity of this fierce, exotic animal in a domestic setting was part of the fun. Whatever the reason, the photos serve as a reminder that polar bears should be seen as friends rather than foes – indeed, they are more threatened by us than we are by them.
You can see more of these fascinating (and slightly baffling) photos here.