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FROM FIRST AND SPRING

Sometimes, You Should Just Grin and Bear It

An Editor's Note

October 29, 2006|Rick Wartzman

With the possible exception of surf, sand and sun, none of Mother Nature's handiwork has had a grip on California's imagination quite like the bear--the grizzly to be precise.

The bear flag was first raised here in 1846 (though some thought the critter pictured on it looked more like a pig). The bear was added to the state seal in 1849. And it was made the official state animal in 1953.

Over the years, California merchants have used depictions of bears to sell chewing gum, silk, apricots and assorted other items. After the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, grizzly emblems came to represent the city's resilience. And more than a century ago, the University of California adopted the Golden Bear as its "mythical guardian," in the words of Susan Snyder, the editor of "Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly," a compendium of ursine images from the Bancroft Library.

Not all of our associations with these creatures are warm and fuzzy. "The ultimate California bear story," Snyder points out, "is that of the eradication of the grizzly . . . and one of the morals of this story is how quickly such irrevocable loss can happen."

But even recognizing that bitter reality, we couldn't resist turning to--and anthropomorphizing--our furry friends on the eve of the Nov. 7 election, their faces and body types recalling various California governors ("Politics Laid Bear," page 24).

Their pictures are glorious, owing to the tremendous talents of L.A. fine-art photographer Jill Greenberg, who has been shooting intimate portraits of animals for the last five years.

Greenberg, whose book of monkey photos was just published, is attracted to bears because of the "social connotations--'He's teddy bear-like.'" She also finds "the duality interesting": Bears look sweet, but they can paw you in half if they so desire.

Greenberg--who stirred a bit of controversy last summer by making cherubic 2-year-olds cry for her photographic series "End Times"--is nothing if not brave. For our shoot, she and her Mamiya camera got right on top of the bears, a few of them topping 1,300 pounds. Though they've been specially trained, Greenberg says she did have a moment when she thought, "Am I insane? Do I need life insurance?"

"They do have big teeth and claws," notes Benay Karp of Benay's Bird & Animal Source, a Woodland Hills company that coordinated the project.

But the animals--Alioop, Ursula, Betty, Whopper, Barney and Bonkers--proved to be "totally mellow" under the high-contrast studio lights, Greenberg says, as well as excellent actors. In fact, they're actually Kodiaks and a black bear; they just played grizzlies for us.

An additional disclosure: The bears were photographed outside Calgary. Yes, that's more runaway production to Canada, I'm afraid.

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