Tucked away in the archives of the US Library of Congress archives is a curious set of photos of black and white images taken during the first half of the 20th century.
The photographer was American Harry Whittier Frees. And these adorable and funny pet photos of mostly kittens and dogs were taken as early as 1914. It the first of their kind, and it wasn’t until the term ‘LOLcats’ was first coined in 2006, that everyone then called him “the original LOLcat photographer.”
Frees was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, USA, and lived from 1879 to 1953. He has been regarded as probably the first-ever person to photograph pets in this frivolous manner. He created novelty postcards, magazine spreads, and children’s books based on his photographs of posed animals. His portfolio attracted widespread popularity not only in the United States but also in Europe and New Zealand.
Starting in 1905, he posed fancifully garbed pets in human situations with props. There was no photo trickery as Photoshop did not exist at that time. His housekeeper, Mrs Annie Edelman, sewed all the animal costumes for him by hand. And all the animal models used belonged to either his neighbours or, were rented from nearby pet stores.
Frees began his unconventional career purely by accident. But as his photos gained popularity, it became his means of income and, more importantly, his signature work. The timing could not have been more auspicious, as when he embarked on his career, picture postcards were taking the world by storm and millions were purchased, mailed or collected annually.
Of his photos, the Atlantic newspaper proclaimed that “their humour and appeal is timeless.” He used 1/5th of a second exposures and held the animals in position using stiff costuming, pins, and various implements.
The work was challenging, time-consuming and stressful for Frees. He worked three months out of the year, and could only use about 30 out of every 100 negatives produced. As to the remainder of the year, he used it for recuperation, and to think of new ideas.
Frees 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.”
In 1915 he released his first book, Little Folks of Animal Land, to showcase his works. He said: “I sincerely hope that others will derive as much pleasure from the antics of the Little Folks of Animal Land as I experience in picturing and telling about them.”
Frees’ most successful book was Animal Mother Goose published in 1921. It contained the familiar rhymes of Mother Goose and his pictures of kittens, puppies and piglets. The preface said: “Every subject in them was a living, healthy, active animal brought into position by patient kindness. No drugged animals much less any that was artificial or stuffed could give the results shown in this book.”
He was single and devoted his life to his photography and the care for his parents. While his images continue to bring a sense of nostalgia, merriment and joy on all who see them, he led a tragic life. Frees lived in isolation and committed suicide in March 1953 after being diagnosed with cancer.
From an obituary in the St Petersburg Times: “Despondent over what he regarded as an incurable disease, Harry Whittier Frees, 74, of 709 Senaca Street, took his own life sometime Sunday by turning on the gas stove in the kitchen.”
The obituary made no mention of his creative efforts nor its widespread appeal. Because he died impoverished, there was no provision for marking his final resting place.
As unpleasant as his end was, he did leave us quite a historical legacy. The life depicted in these photographs were from a different era. The stoves were wood-burning, the clothing often made of gingham, and naughty students wore dunces hats. And he was one of the pioneers in giving us cat photos and memes to LOL about.
Text : Patricia E Tan | Photos: Harry Whittier Frees