American photographer Harry Whittier Frees (1879-1953) found his niche photographing cats and other animals for postcards, books and ads. All of the photos are carefully staged, weirdly posed still-lifes in which animals imitate humans. His career made him famous and controversial. “Frees pioneered Lolcats a century ago,” states a recent article in The Daily Telegraph. Frees used props and special outfits sewn by his housekeeper. The rigid costumes were made to hold the small animals upright. But what else did he do to get results? Were these kitties kindly treated and patiently posed, as Frees claimed? Or held in place with wires and pins, or even gassed and stuffed?
Then as now, there is good reason to question the methods of people who make money off animal subjects. “Mr. Frees will not tell how he keeps his subjects posed in such difficult positions as these,” states the caption for a Life Magazine article from March 1, 1937. “He admits only that objects like forks and needles are tied to their paws. Probably he uses concealed wires. No animal protective services have accused him of of cruelty to animals. Some have even praised his work.” Frees was a pioneering animal photographer in a time when few special effects existed. The evidence suggests most of his subject were living, but perhaps not all. He defended his methods as humane and said he spent hours working with his own pets and animals he borrowed or rented from pet stores. He found kittens to be the most photogenic. “Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal,” Frees wrote in his oddly titled book, Animal Land on the Air.
But some modern observers doubt his claims, and with good reason, since both Victorian and early twentieth century photographers were quite happy taking photographs of animals immortalized by taxidermists. “The idea that some of these images are the result of patience is clearly nonsense,” opines Mike Power in one public post beneath an article about Frees. “He admitted that he used a shutter speed of 1/5th second which, in modern terms, is slow. Taxidermy was popular and the Victorians weren’t concerned about it in the way that we are today.” According to an article on dangerousminds.com, Frees used both dead and living animals, but refused to acknowledge the use of stuffed pets. “If Frees’ contemporaries knew that many of the animals in his photos were dead, they probably didn’t care,” the article states. “Victorians and Edwardians had no problem photographing dead things.”
Frees, who got his start taking photos of animals for postcards, said his sessions with living animals were nerve wracking, and that he invested a great deal of time and care working with live subjects. Cats and kittens were his favorite. An article in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine by Mary L. Weigley provides an interesting biography of the Pennsylvania native, and reports that Frees was a cat lover who got his start photographing the family cat.
Here is an excerpt: “According to an article which appeared in the March 1, 1937, issue of Life, Frees began his career purely by accident. Shortly after the opening of the 20th century one of the Frees brought a paper hat to the dinner table for a birthday celebration. The family gaily passed the hat from head to head until, in a final burst of hilarity, someone placed it on the head of the family cat who, up until that time, had taken no part in the fun. Then and there Frees took a photograph of the fashionable feline. The odd picture was so much admired that he took others and sold some to a postcard printer.”
Weigley tells us that in 1925, an English magazine, Little Folks, ran an article discussing Frees’s methods. “His photographic exposures were taken at one-fifth of a second. Kittens were easily distracted by moving objects and puppies’ attention was diverted by barking dogs.” A Life Magazine article said Frees kept flies out of his studio to avoid distracting his kittens. Frees himself insisted that he achieved results precisely because he was kind to animals. “Mr. Frees attributes his success to his kindly treatment of his models and a sixth sense about animals,” a Life Magazine piece reported. “These unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times,” Weigley writes.
Here is what Frees said about his cat, Rags, in this quote from Weigley’s article. “Rags possesses an unusual intellect for a cat. He has been known to keep a pose for several minutes without as much as the flicker of a whisker. When the very limit of his endurance has been reached he will give a protesting little murmur. A short romp on the ground, together with a choice bit of meat as a reward, will at once restore him to his former amiability.” Frees’ career spanned 50 years. His most successful book was Animal Mother Goose with Characters Photographed from Life, published by Lothrop, Lee and Shepard in 1921. He committed suicide in 1953 after being diagnosed with cancer.