Think of your favorite teddy bear. Now imagine it’s been ripped open, gutted, and turned inside-out. That’s what Kent Rogowski’s Bears series has done to the iconic stuffed animals of our childhoods. In his recently published book and show at Foley Gallery, Rogowski mangles our memories and, at the same time, makes them all the more real.
Kent Rogowski teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design where received his MFA in Photography in 2000. He has received numerous awards, including the Center Award from the Center of Photographic Art, and was selected as finalist for the Calumet/Friends of Photography Emerging Artist Award and the Nerve.com Emerging Artist Award. Rogowski also produced a feature length documentary film on drug trafficking and immigration called Al Otro Lado. It premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2005 and made its theatrical premier at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2006. It was also broadcast nationwide on PBS’s P.O.V. in 2006. Bears is his first book. Rogowski currently lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.
All images courtesy Kent Rogowski and Foley Gallery. All images copyright © Kent Rogowski, all rights reserved.
I love these bears so much. They remind me of my early sewing experiments. What happens when you take such a beloved and iconic toy and transform it by literally turning it inside out?
I think you create a simple and surprising conflict between what we like to think childhood represents, and the icon of that, with the realities of that experience. Teddy bears are designed to be innocuous and non-threatening creatures. Inside-out the bears are still sometimes recognizable but are now much more complicated and contradictory. The seams of the bear now look like scars, and some bears lose their limbs and other appendages depending on how they were constructed. When you look at the inside-out bears they appear to have a history or a past. They no longer offer comfort but instead seem to want our empathy.
Showing the bears’ insides gives them so much more personality and in some way seems to make them more controversial. They’re a little spooky, but also more playful than an ordinary toy. Are these still toys, or has their purpose changed?
That’s an interesting question. I see the work as being about the teddy bear as an icon and what it represents rather than recreating the object to be used as a toy. I want the work to make you think about our notions of childhood more than thinking about how the toy industry designs teddy bears. So, in that respect, I do think the purpose has changed. However, I would be very happy if I inspired young children to liberate their teddy bears by turning them inside out.
The bears make me think of peeled fruit or the inside of my own body. Are there other times when you see the interiors of familiar objects and experience this kind of difference or substance?
I think that depends on the object. The bears resonate with people because the act of how a bear looks when you’ve turned it inside-out directly challenges all of the layers of meaning and nostalgia that we place on teddy bears. I imagine most things would look strange or ugly if they could be turned inside out. However, I doubt that they would have much psychological impact. It is the interaction between what the inside-out bear looks like with what a teddy bear represents that gives the project its substance.
Does each one have a different story or personality? Or is it more about the group or series?
Each bear definitely has a strong personality and its own narrative. As a viewer, you are able to appreciate each bear’s individuality, but [you can] then step back and look at the bears as a whole. Together they form a topology that allows you to compare and contrast each of their traits.
How did you find the bears?
I bought most of the bears from thrift stores. When I started the project, I would go into the store and buy almost all of the bears that were available. Once I was familiar with how the bears were constructed I could be more selective. Eventually, depending on how a bear looked or felt, I could predict which ones would become amputees or have other unique features. For example, one bear was originally designed to suck its thumb. The cavity that the thumb went into resembles the trunk of an elephant or a tongue when the bear was turned inside out. So, when I was shopping, I would look for bears that had some kind of additional function or strange construction.
Are you ever surprised by the way a certain bear looked turned inside-out?
The interesting bears were almost always a surprise. Even being able to anticipate what the bear was going to look like inside-out never fully prepared me for the final result. It would usually take around 10 bears to get one that was really unique.
Is there a motivation besides being able to make the book, that led you photograph these bears?
I always thought that the series would work well as a book. But the book came about much later, after I thought I was finished with the project. I like to find ways to introduce something unique and individual into the mass-produced objects that we surround ourselves with. Usually, that involves deconstructing them in a way that challenges our expectations and relationship to what that object represents. Bears really came out of that interest and exploration.
What changes when a bear is seen in a photograph as opposed to in three-dimensional space?
The photographs are very simple but the change in how you experience each bear is significant. When I was taking the photographs, I manipulated the bears’ gestures, their posture, and all the other factors that expressed their personalities. If you were to look at the original object, these traits would be present but not as clearly defined. In this way the images work just like any other kind of portraiture. The change in medium also allowed me to dramatically manipulate the scale of the bears (exhibition prints are 16x20 and 48x60) and isolate them from any environment that would have distracted you when looking at them as a group.
There are so many comments from people on the bearsthebook website. Is it important to you that the objects resonate with diverse groups of people?
When I am working on a project I am not usually thinking about how large or diverse the audience is going to be. Sometimes, that’s an important consideration, but I am generally just pursing something that I find interesting, not what I think other people will like. What is exciting about Bears, is how diverse the audience has become and the different ways that people are engaged by the work. Some people just find them really cute and want to decorate their kids’ rooms with them, while others look at the images and find them very subversive and disturbing. Other people look at the images and see themselves in them. I think the appeal comes from the project’s simplicity, and because it is an object that a large group of people have memories of.
What kind of response have you gotten to the bears? Has it changed how you see the work?
There are always responses that will surprise me, but nothing that has really changed how I view the work. What I find most interesting is the different ways that adults and children look at the images. I think adults are much more likely to find the work disturbing or threatening because of the meaning that they place onto the teddy bear. To them the gesture of turning a teddy bear inside-out is confrontational, and cannot be separated from the images. Children look at the bears and see something strange but ultimately still cute, funny, and approachable. Some even feel a little sorry for them.