When Irish photographer Mark Nixon created portraits of cherished stuffed animals—“the more loved, unwashed, and falling apart the better”—and posted photos from the exhibit on his website, he was unprepared for the reaction.
People around the world were transfixed by Nixon’s tender, haunting—and sometimes downright creepy—photos of bears and bunnies with shredded ears, missing limbs and piercing plastic eyes. For each viewer, it seems, the portraits brought back childhood memories of their own beloved animals, “repositories of hugs, of fears, of hopes, of tears.”
As interest in Nixon’s exhibit skyrocketed, Abrams Books came calling with a publishing deal. Much Loved, released this fall, collects 60 full-page photos of well-worn stuffed animals, along with the story behind each one. We contacted Nixon at his Dublin studio to find out more about this unusual project.
What inspired you to begin photographing these stuffed animals?
It started nearly three years ago while watching my son Calum with his Peter Rabbit. I was struck by how close he was to it, how he squeezed and smelled it and couldn’t sleep without it. So I thought I’d make a portrait of Peter for him.
Were you surprised by the reaction when you posted the photos on your website?
I couldn’t believe how it spread all over the world so quickly. I had a great time checking every few days what new countries and sites were featuring it. China, Iceland, Peru, France, Israel, Argentina, Holland, England, it went on and on. Some asked permission, but most just took them from other sites. I didn’t mind. With this project, I decided to send it out there and see what happened. There were 6.5 million hits on my site in a few months.
Why do you think these pictures strike such a chord?
I have met so many adults who still love their teddies, still sleep with them, take them on trips and those who are still very angry with a parent who threw theirs away. I think for a lot of people, it’s a very strong emotional bond that is established at a formative stage of development.
How did you find stuffed animals to photograph?
After photographing Calum’s, I thought it might make a good exhibition for my studio, 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 people’s 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.
Some of the animals look quite fragile. 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 on page 38, whose 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 others with bits of stuffing falling onto my floor, that I either put back in or handed it to their owners, who were well used to it.
Did any of the stuffed animals creep you out, even a little?
Only one and probably not one you would think. It was nighttime and everyone had gone home and all of a sudden when I looked at this quite large teddy, I got a little scared. I won’t say which one out of respect for the owner, but I don’t think you would pick that one. I am amused by the ones that other people are creeped out by—I think it says more about them than these adorable creatures.
Tell us about the oldest stuffed animal in the book.
It belongs to Melissa, the lady who runs the Dolls Hospital and Teddy Bear Clinic in Dublin. She acquired it from a woman who was worried that her two sons would fight over it when she died, so Melissa gave her two very nice Steiff bears in exchange. Edward is 104, probably 105 now. It’s funny—Melissa showed me lots of photos of bears 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 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’s been your favorite part of the whole project?
Every step of the journey has been so enjoyable. Just as I think, that’s it, it’s over, done, something new and unexpected happens, like Abrams emailing to ask if they can make a book of it.