Who is Harry Whittier Frees? You may not be able to identify the name right away, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen his work adorning the pages of cat calendars, providing the visual basis for a good animal meme, or popping up in postcards and greeting cards. If you haven’t seen his photographs, you’ve no doubt seen his influence in the pet-centric internet. The New York Daily News called him “the original LOLcat photographer” and it’s easy to see why. Frees’ whimsical depictions of cats and dogs, dressed in human clothes and often doing human things–like playing the cello, having a tea party, or baking a cake–are totally cute, but they also anticipate an entire genre of humor predicated on our love of projecting human qualities onto our animals. Admittedly, contemporary internet humor is less hung up on posing and anthropomorphising pets, with captions doing most of the heavy lifting.
The artist’s moment of inspiration sounds like something that could happen at any party with a cat in attendance. A paper hat was being passed around, ended up on a cat’s head, and Frees snapped a photo of it. A postcard manufacturer saw and liked the photo, using it and establishing Frees’ style in the process. Frees would go on to have a fair amount of success with his pictures and would go on to publish several books of his work.
Frees’ life itself holds some mystery. For example, it remains unclear how often the photographer used taxidermied animals in his photos instead of living ones, if at all. Many believe still that, despite Frees’ insistence that all animals used in his photographs were alive, this simply wasn’t the case, citing the low shutter speed of his camera as evidence. Worse, some have theorized that getting the animals to pose as they did would have required some form of cruelty. One way would be morbid, while the other would be upsetting, but there’s no definitive proof either way.
The artist maintained throughout his career that he used living animals and would often go into great detail about the intricacies of his shoots. In his book, Animal Land on Air, he said:
“Rabbits are the easiest to photograph in costume, but incapable of taking many ‘human’ parts. Puppies are tractable when rightly understood, but the kitten is the most versatile animal actor, and possesses the greatest variety of appeal. The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion. The best period of young animal models is a short one, being when they are from six to ten weeks of age. An interesting fact is that a kitten’s attention is best held through the sense of sight, while that of a puppy is most influenced by sound, and equally readily distracted by it. The native reasoning powers of young animals are, moreover, quite as pronounced as those of the human species, and relatively far surer.”
And in a1937 Life magazine profile, it’s made fairly clear that these rumors were unfounded, going into his process:
“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 cruelty to animals. Some have even praised his work.”
The profile also made a point of clearly stating, “He rents all models from neighbors, breeders, or pet shops.”
One of his most popular subjects was his own cat, Rags. In a 1925 article detailing Frees’ methods featured in British magazine Little Folks, he said of Rags:
“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.”
In his final days, at least, Frees’ life was quite sad, at least for a man whose passion involved putting cats in cute costumes. He never married, choosing to care for his parents and work on his books and photography instead. When his parents passed away, he moved to Clearwater, Florida, where he lived in isolation until his death in March 1953. Diagnosed with cancer and unable to afford treatment, he took his own life.
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