A century before LOLCats and Doge memes took over the Internet, photographer Harry Whittier Frees, born in 1879, made bank specializing in adorable animal pictures. He sold postcards, calendars, and children’s books full of squee-inducing kitties and puppies dressed as people. Proving, once again, that the human obsession with cuteness is as timeless as it is ridiculous.
In this gem of a photo series, what might very well be Grumpy Cat and Lil Bub‘s great-great-great-grandparents wear human clothes while they water flowers, play fiddles, and fly planes. Frees’ work reminds us of the insane Victorian taxidermy of Walter Potter–only slightly less twisted, as Frees’ animals stayed alive for their photo shoots.
So how the hell did he get live kittens to hold rakes in their paws, or wear a priest costume while smiling dementedly at a feline wedding? Frees once wrote that, “these unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times.” In his book Animal Land on the Air, he described his subjects’ acting chops:
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.
The pig is the most difficult to deal with, but effective on occasion. The best period of young animal models is a short one, being when they are from six to ten weeks of age. An interesting fact is that a kitten’s attention is best held through the sense of sight, while that of a puppy is most influenced by sound, and equally readily distracted by it. The native reasoning powers of young animals are, moreover, quite as pronounced as those of the human species, and relatively far surer.
According to a 1937 Life magazine article on Frees, his quirky career began at a birthday party in 1906, when a paper party hat being passed around landed on a cat’s head and Frees snapped a picture. Frees rented his animal subjects from friends and neighbors–and only photographed three months a year, as the work was so nerve-wracking.