You might have seen them circulating on social media; those weird vintage photos of Germans posing with fake polar bears. They're silly, mysterious and slightly unnerving – just some of the 10,000-strong collection of Jean-Marie Donat, a publisher who has been collecting strange vintage photos for 30 years.
Named TeddyBär by Donat, the collection provides a weird snapshot of German history. While the bears themselves look bizarre, when you put the 200 or so images side-by-side, it's the characters hugging them that begin to stand out: two Nazi soldiers grinning, an angelic-looking blonde child with a swastika on her vest. Soon the unchanging bears perversely become the one constant, as a parade of idiosyncratic figures from the 1920s through to the 1970s come and go beside them.
If TeddyBär shines a light on a strange and slightly sinister facet of German culture, Donat's collection Blackface does the same for America and then some. Dating from the 1880s to the 1960s, the photo series depicts a variety of white men and women in blackface, some posing as publicity for travelling minstrel shows, others amateurs who have blacked-up for reasons unknown. The overall effect is slightly sickening.
The two collections will be exhibited at Arles photography festival alongside a third, Predator. This time, the connection is the shadow of the photographer that can be seen in the frame, always wearing a hat. Coupled with the collection's title, it's playful and eerie in equal measure, as if the subjects of the photos are being surveyed and followed by a shadowy cadre of hat-wearing G-men – or maybe always the same guy.
I spoke to Donat about his finds, and got the impression of a man less intent on collecting historical oddities than using them to shed a new light on the past.
VICE: Hi Jean-Marie. First off, talk to me about TeddyBär.
Jean-Marie: I've had my first photo from that collection for thirty years. The first was an exchange with a German collector; that was the beginning of the story. I'm an art director for a French publishing house, so I've always collected a lot of images. Not just photos; newspapers, paintings and drawings. I really began the TeddyBär collection when I found the second photo. The first one was in my books for one year, two years, ten years. When I found the second photo, I remembered I had it.
What about the first photo stood out to you, why did you trade for it?
It was the surrealism: a businessman, just after the Second World War, with an enormous bear in the street. I didn't know the story behind it, the big polar bear, it was just surreal – the kind of image I like.
In the beginning I didn't know it was a German image, until I found the second photo. It's an incredible photo. You can see in my selection, the teddy bear with the German soldiers – that was the second photo. It's incredible, Nazis with a teddy bear in a friendly pose. What was this?
I began to find the story behind this strange tradition. I know a friend, a German, who explained the backstory. 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.
How doesTeddybär connect to your other collections, Blackface and Predator? Is there one big theme here?
I'm not a classic collector. For me what's important is showing a story from history, and what you can learn about history when you see a number of the similar images. When you see one image of blackface for example, you think: "Okay, it's blackface, it's a man in show-business". After 300 or 500, you have a story.
In Blackface, what people are seeing is history: you're seeing racism, segregation in America – it's a report of the old time relations between black and white people.
What about Predator? What's the "story" there?
That was a little different. Really that one's my interpretation, a type of artist's intervention. Actually a lot of collectors collect this type of photo, where a shadow is in the shot.
Yes, but for me what's important is the hat in shot. Because you end up thinking it's the same person - the same man in every photo. You lose, after the fifth or sixth photo, the idea of the photographer. And the name of the series, Predator, suggests a type of suspense movie.
Exactly. So in this series the story is my invention. When you see TeddyBär or Blackface, it's the story of the world, not mine. It's different.
Are you excited to show your photos at Arles photography festival?
This is the first time I've exposed my collections to the public. It's the first time people will see these stories. But it's also the first time I've seen my collections in a complete series. In my house, I have a box with the photos inside, so when I see them I see one photo, then another photo, then one more, you see? Seeing all the photos at the same time, for the first time, I feel like the idea of a story works, and that's what's important. It's like journalism. I spoke to an American recently, who said American families throw away their family photo albums now. All these photos go in the garbage. Blackface, photos of the Ku Klux Klan… All of these photos of American history, gone.
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