Old (and Creepy) Cat Photos Still Controversial

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Were these cats living or stuffed? Early kitten pics, circa 1914, by photographer Harry Whittier Frees that are highly unnatural by modern standards and also a tad creepy. (Screengrab: Frees/Caters/Daily Telegraph)

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.

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Did Frees use wires, needles and forks to keep his subjects from moving? (Screengrab: Life/Google Books)

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.”

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Ready to garden. These contrived images appealed to a wide audience. (Screengrab: Frees/Caters/Daily Telegraph)

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.”

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Cats voting. (Screengrab: Frees/Mother Jones)

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.

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Another horseless carriage breakdown. The costumes made for kittens were intentionally stiff to allow Frees to pose his subjects. (Screengrab:Frees/Caters/Daily Telegraph)

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.

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10 thoughts on “Old (and Creepy) Cat Photos Still Controversial

  1. None of these kittens are dead or even in distress. There are always going to be people who thrive on creating boogymen where there are none. Animals are dressed up and posed all over pintrest. Are they all dead? Stuffed, or all wired into place? I don’t believe in dressing animals for our amusement as has become the common practice, but I don’t think they’re carrying dead pets around either. Another case of, “It’s true! I heard it on the internet!”

  2. Look at kitten and puppies’ facial expressions. Those are way far from being relaxed or in happiness.
    You can easily notice if you ever had a cat or a dog. We know people hadn’t cared animal rights seriously at that time so I won’t blame the photographer.
    Still, those pictures are uncomfortable for me.

  3. I just found Frees’s images at the Library of Congress digital photos collection, while researching a blog post, and I couldn’t use them. Some of those kittens looked stuffed and some look alive but drugged, particularly “Swinging.” The pupils are often visible; wonder if a vet can look at them and tell if the animal is drugged or worse.

    After leaving that site, did a web search on him and found this post. Thanks!

    To wash away the bad feeling the photos leave behind, I heartily suggest another LOC lolcat: Brunnhilde. That one is alive, ticked off at the costume, and the photo is absolutely hilarious! Too, Buzzer the Cat had a nice *live*ly run in more traditional portraits (one of them a nudie!).

    1. I went to the LOC website to locate Brunnhilde, after seeing a LOC photography exhibition currently on in LA, where Brunnhilde is use as one of the key advertising images, its amazing and I want to get a print! I came across Free’s images from the LOC website and at first thought these were cute,, but after reading this article I am thoroughly spooked at the thought that these cats may have been hurt for the photos 🙁

  4. I’m a crazy cat lady, I’ve had almost 30 cats at all. I want to believe that this photographer loved animals as well. At first sight, since I saw these pictures, I loved them because I love cats! BUT, actually I’m a little concerned about some cruelty or abuses either. Sincerely, I don’t know what to think about that. It could be happy or sad. So, we will never know how these pictures were taken, but I prefer to believe in his own words that he cared and loved them because it comforts me. I really don’t know… =/

  5. Somewhere I saw an article and photograph of “The Kitten Wedding”, a diorama of taxidermy kittens in costume representing a wedding complete with pews full of family members. That is really creepy, since the taxidermy skills aren’t perfect and you can tell they are all dead (not to mention it was and may still be in a museum collection).
    I at least believe the animals here are alive, since they don’t look like they have glass eyes. Drugged, maybe, but the only way to have the eyes look normal (moist and unclouded) would be to take the picture immediately after death., which to me would require a ghoulish attitude, not an animal-friendly one.

    Regarding his comment about his own cat Rags being a perfect subject-this I can believe. One of my friends is very active in theater, and her dearly departed first cat was also good at holding a pose as long as she was in her favorite basket. She sat still through a wedding, and appeared as Pyewacket in a community theater production of “Bell, Book and Candle”.

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