Harry Whittier Frees (1879-1953) became an animal photographer solely by accident. When Harry was a teen, the Frees family gathered for a birthday celebration. Someone brought a paper hat to the dining table, and family members passed it along, each person testing how they looked in it. Someone decided to put it on the head of the family cat. Amazingly, the cat held the pose, and Harry Frees was able to photograph her.
After developing this photograph and taking a few similar ones, Frees made his first sale to a postcard publishing company. At the turn of the century, picture postcards were just coming into vogue, and publishers welcomed creative ideas. Frees became well-known as an animal photographer.
Harry Whittier Frees: Early Life
Harry Whittier Frees was born about 60 miles west of Philadelphia in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was the younger of two sons born to his father who was a saddler, and his mother who stayed home to care for her two boys.
When Frees first began selling his work to postcard companies, his animal photographs were relatively simple. The photos featured a dog in a bow, three kittens sitting in a row, or a puppy in a small hammock. Later on, the scenarios became more complex and story-like.
Today’s artist, William Wegman, may well have seen Frees’ work when he started dressing his Weimaraner dogs in clothing to illustrate fairy tales. And the site featuring lolcats must have been inspired by Frees’ work.
Family Cat was Early Model
The Frees’ family cat, Rags, was an exemplary model. In his early
work, Frees used her frequently. Her patience for the job was beyond that of a typical cat. In an early photograph sold to a postcard company, Rags and a duckling are sitting and facing one another. Another duckling appears to be climbing up Rags’ back. The postcard on the caption is “Scaling great heights.”
Because Frees’ work with the animals was unique, he was often interviewed by the press. He told one reporter: “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.” Frees noted that Rags would mew softly when he was at the limit of his endurance. (This article appeared in the Helena Independent, June 1, 1924.)
Rags was eventually joined by Fluffy, a beautiful Angora cat who also exhibited patience. She, too, was used frequently.
Frees’ Animal Photography Changed Over Time
After ten years of selling his work to postcard companies, he also began making sales to magazines, including Child Life and Woman’s World. These photos appeared next to animal stories written by Frees. The context of the stories dictated more elaborate scenarios for the animals.
Frees came up with scenes for the animals that ranged from activities in a kitchen to puppies being part of a fire brigade. He created the miniature props and furniture pieces himself, and there seemed to be no limit to what he would try: a movie studio camera, a miniature bed, a washtub, an ironing board, a ladder, an old-fashioned microphone, a scooter, and a sled, to name just a few of the items he fashioned.
Knowing that people couldn’t resist young animals, Frees also began using younger animals. This posed challenges as he knew puppies and kittens are at their most photogenic when they are between six and ten weeks of age. This meant Frees needed a continuous supply of young animals. He found that he could borrow animals from neighbors or rent them from a local pet store. Puppies and kittens were his usual models, but he sometimes photographed chicks, bunnies, and even a piglet. (Piglets, according to Frees, were the most difficult.) His favorites were kittens. He found them to be more versatile.
Frees also wanted more elaborate costumes for the animals. His
mother furnished many of the little outfits. Later on, his housekeeper, Annie Edelman, helped with this task. Over time, Frees had a dress or uniform for almost every occasion from an animal party scene to police uniforms. Frees told one reporter that the costumes were attached using pins and this made it quicker and easier to get the animals into costume.
How He Captured the Pictures
Were the photographs faked in some way or were the animals drugged? These were questions Frees frequently faced.
Frees consistently assured reporters that no extraordinary or inhumane means were used with the animals, and that patience was the main ingredient for getting these pictures taken.
Kittens were most attentive for a photograph when something is held above them for their eyes to follow. Puppies are so happy to have human attention that the first job was calming them down and then using sound to get their attention for the photograph.
“The feature which sets [these photos] apart from all others…is the nature of the pictures, which represent an almost inconceivable amount of patience, care, and kind attention, as well as a very large number of spoiled films,” said Frees to a reporter from Life magazine (1937).
As his business grew, he also took measures to minimize the pressure on himself. He told a reporter from the Fairfield Daily Ledger that to reduce stress he only worked with the animals for three months each year. The rest of the year he spent planning and fabricating his scenes and writing his stories.
A Kitten with Other Ideas
One day a reporter was observing his work when the shoot did not go as planned.
Frees was working with a kitten named Tiddly Winks. Tiddly’s
mother was outside on the porch during Tiddly Winks’ photo session. Frees dressed the kitten in a pinafore and bonnet and placed him in a basket where he would be photographed peeking out. When Frees turned to prepare the camera for the shot, Tiddly Winks took advantage of the moment. He escaped from the basket and did the best he could to run for the door. However, he kept tripping over the skirt of the pinafore, and soon his bonnet had slipped and the hat was covering one of his eyes. Despite these issues, Tiddly Winks made it all the way to the porch and to his mother who lay there sunning herself.
Starting in 1915 Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard began bringing out books featuring stories and photos. His first book was the Little Folks of Animal Land (1915). His most successful was Animal Mother Goose, with Characters Photographed from Life (1921).
The book reviews that appeared in newspapers after his first book in 1915 demonstrate that the book was considered a children’s book, but there are several elements of these books that would surprise readers today. To begin with, the books are long. Little Folks in Animal Land is 250 pages. Though there are many photographs, a book with a 250-page sustained story would not be written for young children today.
The story is also a bit unusual for the children’s market. The Little
Folks of Animal Land tells the story of the Bufkin Family of cats and their dog servant Barker. When the story opens, Mrs. Bufkin is helping Barker prepare for her daughter Lily’s coming-out party. The story tells of a neighborhood fire, the hiring of an additional servant to help Barker, and eventually Frees moves the plot along, all the way to Lily’s wedding.
There are also some interesting details with which parents would identify, but not children. One of the running themes is Barker’s ability to shift responsibilities back to Mrs. Bufkin, when she has tried to assign the tasks to Barker. (In one scene, Barker wants to be given time and permission to use the family piano to practice her singing—or she will quit before the party.)
Fan letters from young children poured in, so Frees clearly hit his target audience.
Animal Photos Used in Advertising, Too
Occasionally Frees’ animal photographs were used in advertising such as the American Osteopathic Association’s article on “Cat Naps” or the Dairymen’s League Co-Operative Association, which used a photograph called “Kitten’s Party.” It featured a mother cat pouring glasses of milk for three kittens.
In 1935, Utica and Mohawk Cotton Mills hired Frees to prepare illustrations for a booklet, Restful Sleep. Frees used Snowy the cat in several scenarios. Snowy purchases sheets, launders them, irons them, and finally makes the bed. The photos were so popular that cotton mill company used Snowy as the company mascot through the 1940s.
Frees’ Later Life
Frees was attentive to his parents for as long as they lived. When they finally passed away in the 1940s, he moved to Clearwater, Florida. According to Anne R. Bradford who collected Frees’ postcards and attempted to document his story, Frees kept to himself in Florida and remained isolated. When Frees was diagnosed with cancer in 1953, he took his own life.
I welcome comments on how Frees accomplished this work. When I first saw the photos, I felt that in some of the pictures the animals might just be heads poking through mocked-up sets or something. His consistent claim of working purely won me over. If you have thoughts, please share them.