Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Tribute to Harry Whittier Frees

If anyone has ever tried to dress up or photograph an animal they would most likely say that the experience is most difficult. I am embarrassed to admit that as a child I was one of those people. Nothing seemed more exciting and intriguing then dressing up my cat in dolls clothing and projecting human like, or doll like qualities on my poor little kitty. As I’m sure most of you will admit, this is not an easy task, and dressing up your cat or rabbit is not recommended.

Needless to say, nothing sparks curiosity and emotion more than an animal in clothing. Unfortunately, not until I became an adult did I discover the amazing and sometimes unsettling work of Harry Whittier Frees. I’m sure my childhood cat would have approved of Frees’ work, hoping that it would somehow divert my dressing up obsession towards the quirky and fascinating pages found within Harry Whittier Free’ books.

Born in 1879, Harry Whittier Frees began his career as an animal photographer partially by accident, and partially due to a new found popularity in picture postcards. 

In a 1937 issue of Life magazine entitled “Speaking of Pictures…These are Harry Frees Lifework” Frees career is described as starting at a birthday party in 1906, in which a birthday hat was passed around a dinner table and eventually landing on the head of the pet cat. It is said that Frees immediately took a photograph of the cat, and thus launching his career as an animal photographer.

Frees saw his earliest success by selling his images to The Rotograph Company of New York, which hired Frees to photograph animals for their postcards. These included kittens, puppies, bunnies, and ducks.  During this time Frees career flourished, as did the complexity of his photographs. His housekeeper made most of his early outfits, which were designed to help hold the animals in their poses, and at this time, Frees started adding props. 

In an age of computer animation and special effects wizardry, the work of an artist like Fees seems astonishing! Frees exposures were taken at 1/5th of a second and over two-thirds of the negatives had to be thrown out. Frees describes his photo sessions as being “nerve-racking,” and that he would only photograph three months out of the year. The rest of the time was spent preparing new props, and devising new scenes and situations for the animals.

In 1915, Frees’ photographs were acquired by Lothrop, Lee, Shepard Co. of Boston Massachusetts for use in several children’s books. Due to the fact that these photographs were so darn cute and fun to look at, it is no wonder that Frees’ career moved on to book publications. These early books, which were published in black and white, were often criticized, due to a growing concern over animal abuse and fraud, which Frees adamantly rebuked throughout his career. He is quoted as saying “…the feature which sets [these] books 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.”


In the 1930’s the Rand McNally & Company began publishing  books featuring Frees work, as well as reissuing earlier editions of his work, which continued to be published well into the 1950’s and 1960’s.

These popular books, which were part of McNally’s Elf series of children’s books, were first published in black and white, and then later hand-tinted and issued in color. 

Sadly, it is said that Frees died penniless and alone in Clearwater Florida in 1953, apparently of suicide. A lovely tribute book to Frees’ astonishing work was published in the 1970’s by Anne R. Bradford titled “The Animal Magic of Harry Whittier Frees”

Frees’ influence on animal photography can be seen in other works published during the 1940’s and 1950’s. This remarkable movement of photographers focused primarily on humorous and whimsical animal images that were again completely done without the aid of any special effects or manipulation.

Scalawag the Monkey was photographed extensively by the remarkable Rie Gaddis. Along with the help of her husband Bob Wehrmann, Gaddis was able to capture many fascinating and unusual pictures. I imagine many of the same techniques that Frees used were utilized by Gaddis and her husband, and were highly sought after by Rand McNally, which was one of Rie Gaddis’ publishers. Unfortunately, I was unable to find much information on Rie Gaddis or her husband, which is disappointing, since her photographs are so whimsical and fascinating.


  1. How great to see this site. I am a big fan of HWF and have the original Sandman series of books that he did inscribed by him to his parents. My musical project just released a CD in Italy using only his images and giving him credit so that his work can be appreciated by others. His work is whimsical and creepy which pretty much sums up my CD. If you would like to see it, it's entitled All the Children Love 4th Sign of the Apocalypse. Thank you for doing this page!

  2. I have read on a few sites that HWF resorted to photographing dead animals. Is that true?