Heavy Metal Madness: Pet Impersonators

When you don’t have young kids of your own, and you live in a neighborhood where trick-or-treaters are rare, your pets tend to end up having to dress up for Halloween. Ours always do, and in the last few weeks the pet costumes have been arriving in the mail from eBay auctions around the country. From the sheer volume of pet costumes available on line and in stores like Target, I’m guessing we’re not alone in projecting human qualities onto our fury friends. In fact, dressing up animals in human clothing and photographing them has been around just about as long as photography.

Our own dog Joey, dressed as a pig for Halloween, and Biscuit, who wanted to be a bee this year.

And even long before photography, both wild and domestic animals have stood in for humans in artwork throughout the ages. Not all of these images were meant to be funny — many were mythical or even scary in their representation. But to me, there’s nothing funnier than a pet in a costume — all the better if they are put in real-life situations and appropriate sets.

The current undisputed master of funny pet photography is certainly San Francisco photographer John Lund. You’ve seen John’s work in many places, and his line of greeting cards for Portal Publications are best sellers. John did a number of terrific cover photos for me when I was running Publish magazine back in the mid-’90s, and in addition to being an absolute master at realizing the cartoon-ish potential of Photoshop, John has a dry but witty sense of humor.

Three examples of the talented work of San Francisco photographer John Lund, who works with animals trained by Bow Wow Wow Productions in Mountain View. Lund depends extensively on Adobe Photoshop, and while he says he enjoys photographing animals more than kids, he has had few of his own pets.

You can read about John’s Photoshop work in the excellent book co-authored by creativepro.com editor-in-chief Pamela Pfiffner, Adobe Master Class: Photoshop Compositing with John Lund. John works with animals supplied an animal trainer in Mountain View, California, and the shots are pre-conceived by art directors at Portal. Animals are, you can tell, treated well, though I’m sure sometime their patience runs a little short.

And though Lund and other contemporaries depend extensively on Photoshop to achieve their dramatic situations, William Wegman has made an important mark photographing his own pets, and a Japanese movement in the ’80s known as Pelorian, also pictured animals (mostly cats) in natural but odd situations.

But for me, there is nothing like the old-fashioned pictures of pets made popular in a line of children’s books published by Rand McNally.

Doing it the Hard Way
Harry Whittier Frees is probably the best known of the early photographers of funny animal situations. Born in 1879, Whittier began his career by taking pictures of animals for novelty postcards, and by 1905 he was adding various props and clothing to the shots to give the animals a more human image. His mother made most of the early outfits, which were designed to help hold the animals in what can only be described as “unnatural” poses.

This is an early example of photographer Harry Whittier Frees’ work with animals, from the book "The Animal Mother Goose." Frees (1879-1953) generally used live animals, often his own or his neighbors.

Unlike John Lund, who doesn’t have any pets of his own, many of the shots composed by Frees used his own animals or those of his neighbors. His cats Rags and Fluff were used extensively in his early work.

More Frees work from the early part of the twentieth century: The second image, titled Playtime, was taken in 1914.

Cats were a favorite of Harry Whittier Frees, as illustrated in these two examples from his early efforts. In all the McNally books, the publisher is quick to point out that it was “only through patience and love of animals that these remarkable photographs were accomplished.” Fees used his own cats, Fluff and Rags, for many of his pictures.

Frees’ photos lent themselves immediately to children’s books, and by around 1915 several had been published in black and white. In the 1930’s Rand McNally began publishing new Frees works and re-issued some of his earlier editions. Very popular, these books, part of McNally’s Elf series of small children’s books, were issued again in the 1950s in color — the photos had been hand-tinted.

Covers from four of the Rand McNally Elf Series of children’s books, which included many made by photographing animals in various human settings and poses. Yip and Yap was photographed by Frees and written by Ruth Dixon. Teddy the Terrier was photographed by Constance Latimer and Mary Love and written by Virginia Hunter. Scalawag the Monkey was written by Dixon and photographed by Rie Gaddis and Bob Wehrmann. Squiffy the Skunk, was bravely photographed by George and Grace Neff, the latter of whom also wrote the book.

Frees wasn’t alone in his efforts to picture household pets in uncomfortable situations. Scalawag the Monkey was photographed extensively by Rie Gaddis and her husband Bob Wehramm. The pair also did a great multi-animal book called "Little Friends," which pictures kittens, puppies, and bunnies cavorting together.

Photographer Rie Gaddis managed to get dogs and cats to play nice for the book "Little Friends" (above), and several books were released starring Zippy the chimpanzee who was cared for and photographed by Lee Ecuyer. Zippy was also featured on the Ed Sullivan Show, Howdy Doody and the Garry Moore show.

Quite a few other photographers, including several husband and wife combos, contributed to the Elf book series. A small movement was born throughout the 1940s and 1950s of writers/photographers who specialized in humorous animal photography, all without the aid of computer technology.

Getting a rabbit to sit still for a photo is one thing, getting two of them, including one soaking wet, to do it is another. Photographer Dale Rooks accomplished this remarkable feat in the 1945 edition of "Three Little Bunnies."

Puppies are hard to control, but not so much so that Dale and Sally Rooks failed to get three of them in the top picture, from the book "Three Little Puppies," and of course only a poodle would enjoy dancing like a ballerina, photographed by Albert Westelin and Jack Schmidling in the book "Playtime Poodles."

Our Own Tortured Pets
As for our own poor pets, they have learned to endure the annual ritual of dress up each Halloween, often with multiple costume changes. We are lucky to have two dogs that like to wear clothes, though usually for a very limited period of time (for as long as the treats keep coming).

As for tips, I only have one, and that is to have a partner who knows how to train animals and keep them calm. My wife Patty is a volunteer dog trainer at the local animal shelter and while our own pets are far from angelic, she has done a good job of teaching them how to focus on the food, and not run around like complete nuts when strapped into a Velcro bee outfit or princess crown.

Biscuit isn’t all about fun, sometimes she has a serious side, as in this shot of her dressed as a Rabbi. And Joey, despite her diminutive size, makes a pretty scary ghost.

It is my belief that no self-respecting dog, and certainly no self-respecting cat, actually enjoys wearing funny outfits (except poodles), but then they are certainly not self-respecting. But there is no question that we humans get a big kick out of dressing our pets up sometimes, and as long as no one gets hurt or humiliated too badly (I’m talking mostly about the humans here) I see no harm in it and have a feeling almost every pet owner has secretly dressed their pets in their own likeness. If you have, I’d love to see the results.

Maybe we can talk Pam here at creativepro.com into running a funny-pet photo page or something.

Happy Halloween to you and your animals.

Read more by Gene Gable.

Posted on: October 28, 2004

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

2 Comments on Heavy Metal Madness: Pet Impersonators

  1. Mr. Gable, your columns always cheer me up. Not only is the content observant, charming and funny, but also the best best best of information about the history of printing and design, my very favorite subject.
    Barry Moores

  2. Haha those pictures are both cute and hilarious! I’m curious to know how many takes and hours it took to get some of those pictures just right. I sent my little (actually, not so little) dog through puppy training so I think that’s a step closer. Now to figure out how to get a hold of those costumes…

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