From Predator Claws to Manicured Paws: Victorian Pet Photography

Mischief

One of the things that consistently unifies people from all different backgrounds is the love of looking at cute pictures of animals. This is nothing new, with the trend starting in the Victorian era as cameras became more accessible. Even still, wealthier families typically took these shots to flaunt their fortune. Instead of commissioning large portraits, however, they posed their pets in front of cameras, sometimes even in dapper little outfits that look captivatingly adorable over 150 years later.

Early Animal Photography

Lots of animals were photographed dead as a result of biological exploration in the 1800s. For example, Ernest Benecke took a picture of a dead crocodile onboard an exploration vessel in Egypt as it traveled along the Nile. This is also the first crocodile to have an autopsy performed on it, as the inner workings of species were a hot topic for Naturalists in the mis 1800s. For reference, this photo was taken in 1852, and Charles Darwin released On the Origins of Species in 1859. 
 

The first image of a living animal carries speculation along with it, as it never had a full timestamp. Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey captured a sunbathing cow in France around 1840-1860. Even if the jury is still out on the image’s stance as the first photo of an animal, it is definitely the first image of a cow, and rightfully so. He captured possibly one of the best early candid photos ever. That sweet angel didn’t even need to be posed, lying on the grass without a care in the world.

Twisted Hope 2001
Twisted Hope 2001
The Nurse
The Nurse

What Pets Are Most Commonly Photographed?

The primary animals that were used as models in early pet photography were dogs and cats, although exotic animals (such as the wombat owned by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti) were also popular. Here, as in most aspects of daily life, the royal family was influential. Queen Victoria was known to own several animal companions throughout her reign, including Dash, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Turi, a Pomeranian. Additionally, she owned 88 collies in her lifetime. The Queen was photographed and painted with her own pampered pooches throughout her reign, contributing to the rising popularity of pet ownership. Mid-Victorian advice columns promoted lap dogs and kittens as essential members of the bourgeois household. These pets are immortalized in photography of the time, which reveals their timeless importance in society. Today, nearly one in two British families own a furry companion, with the Victorians to thank.

The Photographer
The Photographer
Cat for Master Franchette 1887
Cat for Master Franchette 1887

Flaunting Affluence Through Professional Pet Photos

Once photography had rooted itself as the staple medium for the public to illustrate their everyday lives, wealthy families began flaunting their fortune by focusing on their animals to make their photography more distinct. The domestic sphere and “home life” became solidified during the rapid social change in the Victorian era; pets became integrated into the domestic sphere and viewed as members of the household. As a result, we see animal companionship becoming more desirable as an accessory instead of a utility. Cats no longer have to be bred to catch mice in barns. Instead, they can be put in pretty little outfits while the photographer catches their good side.

 

During a time of great social change, there were many reformist movements taking place, including animal rights. Thus, photography was used as a tool for people to associate themselves with these values.

Silly Little Pets in Their Silly Little Outfits

Blue Period and Banjo
Blue Period and Banjo
Eyewear II 1994
Eyewear II 1994

The first commercial pet photographer was Harry Pointer. During the 1870s, Pointer began creating over 200 carte de visite photographs featuring his pet cats, collectively known as “The Brighton Cats.” Placing his feline friends in humorous poses, he sold each photograph as tiny greeting cards.

 

Later, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Harry Whittier Frees began taking photos of animals in humanlike scenarios. As a teenager, Frees attended a family dinner party where a paper hat was passed around to each family member. As one family member placed the hat on the beloved cat’s head, the room erupted with laughter, and Frees pulled out his camera. The cat portrait was sold, along with Frees’ repertoire of personified animal photographs, as novelty postcards, magazine spreads, and children’s literature. The process of photography in this era was time-consuming and meticulous. Frees only photographed animals three months out of the year, and only around 30 negatives out of every 100 were feasible. Although Frees was successful, he was not always financially stable. He never married, as he devoted his life to his photography.

 

More recently, William Wegman is known for his artistic photographs of his Weimaraners in eerily anthropomorphic costumes and poses.  Beginning his career in the 1970s with his beloved dog Man Ray, Wegman created educational and comedic video projects for Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live. Later, he photographed his dogs in various compositions, ranging from fashionable artistic pieces to surreal and disturbing pieces. Wegman, originally describing himself as a minimalist-conceptualist trapped in a “tough corner” artistically, has now become known for his brilliant, humorous compositions, forming close bonds with his dogs through their collaborative work.

Photography revolutionized how artists presented the world, especially through the lens of the wealthy. Capturing stills of the upper class’s pampered pets in their posh little outfits was a way to exhibit how the rich were spending their time and money, and even through a modern lens, it’s impossible not to crack a smile at these pets. From Harry Pointer’s greeting cards to Whitman and Wegman’s anthropomorphic animosities, these fabulous pets can be credited for how animals are depicted today in photography, paintings, and film alike. We can walk our way backward in history in this timeline of artistic and technological innovation as a way to appreciate the early age of photography as an art form and thank these early artists for providing us with some of the most adorable and heartwarming pictures over 150 years later.


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