Some 30 years ago, when French photo collector Jean-Marie Donat first came across an image of a person in a polar bear costume on the streets of Berlin, the surreal nature of it caught his attention. But he didn’t realize it was part of a larger story until a second one turned up. Eventually, many more became part of his collection—black and white snapshots of (mostly) friendly faces alongside a longhaired white bear with a perma-smile and beady eyes. Now, his many found images are together in a book called TEDDYBÄR.
The origins of the mid-20th century tradition are a bit of a mystery, though Donat gave VICE a possible explanation he received from a German friend: “At the beginning of the 1920s, two polar bears came to Berlin Zoo. Many families go to the zoo to see the bears—they're in fashion—and all of the children want photographs in front of the zoo with these guys in bear suits. It's a huge success in Berlin. And after, throughout Germany for the next 60 years, there are lots of these teddy bears. In my collection I have 30 different bears.”
Hyperallergic sheds a different light on the subject, reporting that the costume was created by stuffed animal company Steiff to sell Fanta—conceived by the Germans as alternative to Coca-Cola in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The mascot was meant to encourage a feeling of fun and normalcy and detract attention away from the horrors of wartime. (Coca-Cola's polar bear first appeared in 1922.)
The 200-page TEDDYBÄR features the bears with everyone from children to soldiers in Wehrmacht uniforms (and even a child wearing a swastika on her chest). They span decades, from about the '20s to the '60s, offering a unique glimpse at Germany during a very critical time in its history. The book also includes a postface from philosopher Klaus Peter Speidel, adding some commentary to the “placid, playful, sometimes disturbing” and surreal photos.
From the photo book TEDDYBÄR, a series from the Jean-Marie Donat Collection, Innocences Publishing. All images courtesy of Innocences Publishing.