Did you have a teddy bear when you were a child and, if so, did you include it in the book? Yes I did, Panda is on page 42. In fact there are 3 generations of Nixon teddies in the book, my father’s, mine and my son’s.
Which photographer do you most admire? 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. I just thought you could do the same thing with bears. You can take them and blow them up. It makes them iconic in a way. It gives them a presence or a gravity they don’t usually have.
How did this book start? Much Loved started as a very simple idea: to photograph some ‘loved to bits’ teddy bears for an exhibition in my studio, which happily has a gallery space. I got the idea from watching my son, Calum. I was struck by how attached he was to his Peter Rabbit, the way he squeezed it with delight when he was excited, the way he buried his nose in it while sucking his thumb, and how he just had to sleep with Peter every night. I vaguely remembered having similar childhood feelings about my own Panda.
How did you find these stars to photograph? After photographing Calum’s, I thought it might make a good exhibition for my studio, which has a gallery space, so I had a day where people could bring their teddy to be photographed for possible inclusion in the exhibition. Then a radio show interviewed me about it and I was sent more, then when the exhibition opened and it went online, I was inundated with requests from around the world to photograph peoples’ teddies. The main problem was when they realized they would actually have to send their precious bear to me, a lot of them wouldn’t, but some did, and some of those are in the book.
How did you choose which ones to photograph? 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.
Did you have difficulty posing any of them to get your shot? There were a few that I had to be very careful with. Open Ear’s on Page 38, skin or coat, whatever you want to call it, was hanging by a thread. Rabby on Page 118, who had no shape at all, it was just like a long string of wool, but I managed to arrange it into some kind of shape. There were a few other with bits of stuffing falling onto my floor, that I either put back in, for handed it to their owners, who were well used to it.
Which is the oldest star in the book? It belongs to Melisa, the lady who runs The Teddy Bear and Dolls Hospital in Dublin. She acquired it from a woman who was worried that her two sons would fight over it when she died, so Melisa gave her two very nice Steiff bears in exchange. Edward, Page 62, is 104, probably 105 now. It’s funny, Melissa showed me lots of photos of bear she had repaired and I had to be honest and tell her I thought she’d ruined them by making them new again. I notice she hasn’t fixed Edward’s nose!
Is Gerry the Giraffe on page 46 really only 10 years old? Yes, Gerry was one of the first batch I photographed on my Teddy Day. Little Sophie had him tucked inside her coat and was very reluctant to give him to me while she waited for me to photograph him. I had to arrange him in a way to show his face and when I gave him back to her, she said to her Daddy he didn’t look the same, oops! But she forgave me and they both came to the exhibition opening, Gerry tucked inside her coat. This is one of the ones that freaks people out, but he’s got such a lovely little face with a smile and long lashes.
What was surprising about the book? People’s strength of feeling took me by surprise. While waiting, they would tell some usually funny story about their teddy (how they had nearly lost it at some stage was a common theme), or would speak emotionally about what it meant to them. So the stories and memories became integral to the photographs, adding significance to them and bringing them to life.
Why do you think people keep their teddy bears for so many years? 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.
Read my review of ‘Much Loved’ here.