Bears and Brownies
December 6th, 2010

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately scanning old photos, and here’s what I’ve discovered: the Menzies family album includes more pictures of bears than of people!

Why is it, I wonder, that my grandfather took more interest in bears than in his own grandchildren? And how is it that all we have to show from our family vacation to Yellowstone in 1950 are more pictures of bears? I mean, I don’t know these bears personally and in most cases I can’t tell whether they are brown bears, black bears, papa bears or mama grizzlies. Are they my forebears? I think not.


I’ve concluded there is some sort of weird symbiosis between photography and bears. For example, George Eastman claimed he “invented” the word Kodak, but I don’t believe that for a moment. What he did was just remove one letter from the word Kodiak, and presto! Suddenly everyone had to have one. And which was the most popular Kodak? Well, of course it was the Brownie! Who among us can hear the words “Kodak Brownie” without automatically thinking of bears? Or, for that matter, the expression “Point and Shoot?”

For as long as he could tie up ursine-suggestive trademarks, George Eastman pretty much had a monopoly on the camera business, although for a time he was challenged by Edwin Land, who patented—you guessed it—the Polaroid.

I confess I’m not immune to shooting bears with my camera. Almost the first picture I ever took with my own Kodak Brownie was of a bear in a zoo in Durango, Colorado. And of course, like all visitors to Yellowstone, I was enthralled by the sight of wild bears begging for food alongside the highway. In the summer of 1962, on my way home from a dish washing gig in West Yellowstone, I paused briefly to shoot this picture from the window of my car.meals_on_wheels_copy

The negative lay dormant for forty years, until finally I got around to making a print of it, and today it’s one of my all-time favorites. Why? Because it depicts a time in America that is gone forever. Visitors to Yellowstone are no longer permitted to feed bears. Cars no longer have tail fins. Drivers no longer puff on pipes, and tossing Cheetos out the window nowadays would be called littering.

-Richard Menzies