These Are Some of the Earliest Pet Photographs


Henry Pointer, “The Old Batchelor” (post-1860s) (image courtesy BG/OLOU / Alamy) Alamy Stock Photo

We might think of the preponderance of pet photographs as a modern phenomenon, but a new exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford in the United Kingdom reveals that portraits of our furry friends have always been a cultural obsession. A History of Photography (Through Pets) highlights historic photographs of animal companions from the museum’s collection, the earliest of which dates back to the 1830s.

This first image in the exhibition, made by artist J.M. Burbank, utilizes the negative/positive process in silver-based photography, an 1834 breakthrough by William Henry Fox Talbot, to depict a favorite cat. Though the softly shaded image looks more like a pencil drawing than a high-contrast photograph, it stands as not only a successful technological experiment but also a cat-tivating portrait of his feline subject. It’s also an example of Burbank’s modest mark on history: He would go on to exhibit animal studies throughout the 1830s in Britain.

Ruth Quinn, curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the National Science and Media Museum, observed that the development of photographic processes can be traced through pet portraiture throughout history.

“Even in the earliest days of cameras and printing technology, our beloved pets have always been immortalised in photos,” Quinn said in a statement.

Naturally, the true genesis of pet portraits is the people who can’t get enough of their domesticated companions. By the 1840s, Talbot’s breakthrough process was flourishing in a limited-release capacity, available to certain studios for public consumption. Most were content to memorialize human subjects in this novel way, but Mary Mitford, a celebrated poet, novelist, and dramatist of her time, insisted on a 1847 portrait sitting for her dog. It was dubious that an animal subject could remain immobile for the four-minute-long exposure such early-stage photography required, but Mitford’s dog performed with the patience of a steadfast companion (or long-suffering entourage), remaining perfectly still for Nicolaas Henneman’s image.

Photography is not a field with only one innovator. In 1839, Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre stole Talbot’s spotlight with his eponymous daguerreotype technique, which printed a direct-positive single image onto a silver plate, producing remarkable results. People wasted no time in making daguerrotypes into doguerrotypes, as with an unattributed image from approximately 1846 in the museum’s collection. Unlike Mitford’s dog, this canine subject was unwilling to sit perfectly still, causing some distortion to the image of what is, nonetheless, a very good dog.

As William Wegman can tell you, the only thing better than a portrait of a pet is a portrait of a pet seeming to partake in human activity. In a post-1860s image titled “The Old Batchelor,” a cat appears atop a wine cask, alongside a glass and corked wine bottle. The image is an example of a “cabinet card” — the photographic rage of its time — which used an albumen process to produce a high-contrast image with a vague sienna wash. Cabinet cards were designed to be exchanged or shared with family and friends, so they were essentially the first memes. (Get it? It’s a “batch” of wine, and we all know that bachelors drink a lot, and the cat is like … well, not all memes are funny, anyway.)

As the proverb goes, everything old becomes new again.  



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