Monday, September 24, 2018

The First LOL Cat Photographer

If you're a cat lover, you've probably seen Harry Whittier Frees photography at some point but didn't know his name. He photographed kittens and puppies in the early 1900s dressed like people, performing domestic tasks in human poses. Some observers think they are creepy ~ they are certainly odd, but how did he get them to stay? The mystery is still unsolved.


Frees was born in Reading, Pa. in 1879 and worked there most of his life. Rumor has it that at a birthday party the guests were passing around a paper party hat. Someone placed it on the pet cat and Frees snapped a picture. A postcard manufacturer liked the image so much he reprinted it on cards. Frees was in the right place at the right time to start his fascinating career. (A job I'm quite jealous of I might add!)


He used live animals in his photographs and borrowed them from neighbors, breeders, and friends. His images graced the pages of calendars, magazines, novelties, and even his own books. His career lasted a whopping 50 years!

Frees had one assistant that made the tiny clothes for the animals. Some say she added wiring to the clothes to pose the animals just so. He always defended his methods of getting the animals to pose, stating that his techniques are humane. Getting live animals to sit still while wearing clothes can be a challenge and it is said that caused Frees a lot of anxiety, so he would only work three months out of the year to have time to recuperate. (Wow! I wish I could do that!) Even more frustrating only 30 out of 100 negatives could be used.


More recently it was suggested that he purposely stuffed the animals to get good photos, which was not uncommon to taxidermy animals during the Victorian time. Heck the Victorians always photographed their dead. But I personally have a hard time believing that. His first model was his cat Rags, and he loved animals. He said, "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.” Some interesting tips for photographing your pets from Frees...he said kittens are the best models and respond better to visuals and puppies respond more to sound.


I know the challenges of posing cats and how hard it can be. My shop Cats Like Us has had several photoshoots at the SPCA Serving Erie County. We would never dress their cats up because they all have different temperaments, but we feature adoptable cats with some of our small products for sale. It's a win-win when the kitties get adopted and the merchandise sells! You can read about it here.

Frees had mild success and cared for his parents until they passed in the 1940s. Eventually he moved to Clearwater, FL. and was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, in March of 1953 he took his life.

Sode note: If you're a child of the 1980s and watched a lot of Night Flight, you probably saw a more recent take on dressing up Japanese kittens as bikers.




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