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Book Review: Bear Portraits by Jill Greenberg

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Towering pillars of rage, claws extended, maws gaping – the bear in all of its raw, powerful glory. That’s the look Jill Greenberg was going for when she set out to compose a selection of photographs profiling the bear. Burned by some harsh criticism of her latest portrait exhibit, celebrity photographer Greenberg set out to encapsulate the human aggression she was receiving on a canvas of bearskin. One look at the cover of Bear Portraits is enough to let you in on the fact that she changed her mind during the process.

The collection I now hold in my hands is a minimalistic, photographic essay of 12 working bears of varying species in a series of poses and facial expressions that yes, do at times reflect pure bear power – but at other times are somewhat reminiscent of looks we’ve seen on our own faces or that of our loved ones. I’ll admit that I don’t particularly resonate with some aspects of Greenberg’s new mission such as drawing connections between human and animal behaviour, but that doesn’t much matter – it’s the photos I’m after.

After a one-page introduction to her work, it’s straight into amazing bear portraiture! Though sprinkled with takeaway quotes from notable thinkers ranging from Emerson to Homer Simpson, the stunning bear photography is always front-and-center. Any adult opening the book is first-most taken by the nearly otherworldly appearance of the bears, clean and refined, they appear more like anatomically correct teddy bears than the real deal at first glance. “Are those real bears?” my husband asked. The poses are so unique, the facial expressions so quizzical at times that the question is entirely understandable.

Make no mistakes – this isn’t nature photography, it’s carefully lit, set against studio-like monochromatic backgrounds, and the bears are guided by trainers as Greenberg looked for her shots. If you’re looking for bears catching fish or rolling around in mountain glades, this isn’t the collection for you. I’ll admit that as much as I’ve enjoyed the portraits I do find myself wondering if I’d ever see bears looking so dumbfounded, thoughtful, happy, or bemused as they often appear in this title. The huge, roaring bear stances I expect, as well as the sleepy bear, but it’s just these unexpected shots, and the contrast between gentle and giant that really make Bear Portraits what it is.

While every member of our family has spent large chunks of time immersed in Greenberg’s work, her biggest fan around here is my 16-month-old daughter. Any time she spots Bear Portraits it’s off the shelf, dragged across the floor and into a lap – either hers or mine. She turns the pages, laughs, coos, babbles happily, and has mastered the word ‘bear’ as we discuss the creature on each page. I literally have to put this book out of sight if I don’t want to see it dragged around our home. Thankfully it’s a sturdily bound hardcover with pages of a substantial weight. It could easily be considered a coffee-table book due to its rich and intriguing photographic content, but its smaller size (10” by 8”) makes it easy to read together while cuddling on the couch.

Also included in Bear Potraits is a ‘Who’s Who’ section at book's end. Listing each subject by photograph, followed by name, species, height, weight, residence, and professional credits, each model is given credit for his or her  work. A fun game of finding which pictures belong to which bear can then ensue. Some are easy like the 800 lb. Agee the possessive Polar bear, the adorable Amos, a 4-month-old European Brown Bear, and Koda with a distinctive Grizzly shaped-face. An additional four breeds are also represented: Kodiak, Black Bear, and Russian Brown Bear.

My children love the cubs the best of course, while I find Agee’s striking coloration and dignified poses to be show stoppers. No matter which of the bear species is your favorite, or what bear mood you delight in, Bear Portraits is a diverse and fascinating exploration of bear-kind.

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About Jennifer Bogart

  • Sounds like a nice Christmas gift for bear lovers.