Jochen Raiß is a flea-market hunter, a collector of old photographs. Two previous books, the labors of his finds—Women in Trees and More Women in Trees—have already elicited enthusiasm from photography fans. Now he has opened up his treasure chest for a new, mysterious series: pictures of people posing with polar bears. Say that again? What at first sounds like a dangerous hobby turns out to have been a strange tradition in twentieth-century photography…
Collecting amateur photographs requires a certain kind of stubbornness and constant searching. Jochen Raiß has both and has been on this hunt for more than 25 years, first as a personal hobby, and then, later, by very purposefully combing through flea markets, on the lookout for historical photos.
Raiß’s new tome Polar Bears compiles examples of what turns out to have been a special trend in photography in the first half of the twentieth century. People of various ages had themselves photographed in polar bear costumes—at the beach, in the pub, in the snow, at fairs, with the whole family, or with friends, with a partner, or alone. They are snapshots of the past and also forgotten (and, apparently, because they landed in flea markets) days.
Produced between the 1920s and the 1960s, before everyone could afford a camera, the photographs provide a brief glimpse of the lives of those portrayed, both the costumed and the un-costumed. There is a lot of room for stories. “I love photos of people in unusual situations. Pictures that aren’t perfect, pictures I know nothing about. Then stories immediately start to develop in my mind,” says Raiß about the appeal of his collection.
How the trend got started remains unclear. Raiß imagines that there must have been an inventive photographer behind the business idea of putting his assistant in a costume and taking souvenir photos at popular tourist destinations. The costume is the one constant, regardless of whether the picture was taken in midsummer at the Baltic seashore with tourists in bathing suits, or during the dead of winter in the ski-resort town of Garmisch.
Touchingly, Raiß dedicates his new book to the people who either sweated or froze in a polar bear costume for the sake of their art.