The most recognizable fruits of photographer Kate Breakey’s career are pictures of dead animals, presented with no artifice beyond the monochromatic backgrounds. If it weren’t for the visceral subject matter, the appearance would be almost austere, in some ways relating to Imogen Cunningham’s and Edward Weston’s 1920s plant and shell photographs, which were considered to have a radically simplistic focus.
One important segment of Breakey’s work transforms the details of carcasses into the shadow realm. This is the photogram, which she has been experimenting with since art school in her native Australia. In the dark, she placed a eucalyptus leaf onto a sheet of photosensitive paper and exposed it to light. After putting the paper through baths of developer and fixer solutions, she had a bright “shadow” image of the leaf standing out against the black background of the exposed paper. She was hooked.
This cameraless process was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1830s. He called it “photogenic drawing.” Perhaps the most famous photogram artists are Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy, creators of dynamic and modernistic black-and-white images, nearly a century ago. However, Breakey relates more to the 19th-century botanist Anna Atkins, who specialized in capturing images of certain plant varieties with cyanotype photograms. She self-published these in a series of volumes titled Photographs of British Algae.
Breakey has made arresting photograms of plant leaves and flowers, but it’s her animals that practically shout at the viewer, both for their liveliness and the variety of form. She has written that she makes a photogram of a deceased animal “so that its beauty and its death are memorialized.” Her new book, Las Sombras/The Shadows, features 99 plates that represent a veritable almanac of the American Southwest — included are images of a bobcat, a bush cucumber, an armadillo, a prickly pear cactus, a desert cottontail rabbit, an Arizona walnut leaf, and a Gila woodpecker.
The photograms are preceded by an introduction by poet Liz Purpura and a one-page text by the photographer. “I picked the dead coyote up off the road,” Breakey begins her piece. “It had been hit by a car, probably at dawn that morning. It was surprisingly heavy, but its coat was finer and softer than I had imagined.” As she collects the body of the female coyote, she pictures “her pack, maybe even her young, waiting for her, calling her.”
Breakey has lived outside of Tucson since 1999. She and her husband have four acres of land and are surrounded by “a tremendous amount of animals,” she told Pasatiempo. “It does remind me of Australia here. I grew up in a fairly small country town on the coast of South Australia, 400 miles from Adelaide, where I went to school. There was lots of wilderness and lots of animals, and I grew up going out to friends’ farms and had family that had all sorts of rescue animals around, magpies and parrots and I guess they had a wombat.”
Her family’s animal-loving tradition is being continued by the Breakeys, who have adopted a desert tortoise. That tenderness is translated into her photograms. You never get the feeling that these are just ratty old critter corpses dumped onto the paper. It’s easy to think that she goes to great lengths to present the animals in lifelike ways. Her roadrunner actually looks like it’s running. The great horned owl appears to be in flight. “It’s not as conscious as that, really. I’m just trying to get the best silhouette I can. I’m arranging for the shape that expresses what they are.”
In the same way a photographer approaches a subject from different angles and takes a number of photos, Breakey likes making multiples. “I keep the animals in the freezer until I’m ready, and then I thaw them out and they get sort of pliable, so I do get to manipulate them a little bit. I try to do 10 of each, although that’s a huge undertaking with all the chemistry involved in developing these big prints.”
The photogram process is essentially very simple. The artist requires neither a cameranor an enlarger, although Breakey uses an enlarger because it offers a controlled, focused light source. She “fogs” her animal and plant pictures: “I take the creature off the paper and I flash the light, so that it comes out gray and black instead of white and black, and then I tone the print so it’s in browns.”
Her typical exposure under the enlarger is about 10 seconds. By contrast, Anna Atkins’ photograms of seaweed and algae had to be in the sun all day. Atkins’ fine cyanotypes demonstrate a sensibility both artistic and scientific. This broad approach is also seen in Breakey’s work, not only because of her rather encyclopedic portrayal of the ecosystem but in her titles: she knows her taxonomy, naming each one of her photograms with the organism’s common name and its Latin name. The Pandora sphinx moth is, precisely, Eumorphapandorus. That coyote is none other than Canislatrans.
“I live with a molecular biologist, so that helps. My husband of 30 years is a scientist, and we’ve always been interested in the natural world. At one point, though, he did get sick of me storing my dead animals in the freezer alongside the food, so I had to buy my own.”
She didn’t have to worry about freezing the specimen for her bald eagle photogram. “You’re not allowed to collect a bald eagle if you find one. This one I got commissioned to do, to illustrate an Annie Proulx short story, and they flew me to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado to do that photogram.”
That’s one of the Breakey pieces that can be viewed in the show Desert Grasslands at the Tucson Museum of Art through July 7. “Apart from what you see in the new book, I frame these in vintage frames, and it becomes an installation, a giant sea of animals, like a great big tapestry that ranges from the tiny scorpion in a 3-inch frame and then you step back to see the eagle.” The framed bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is 43 by 79 inches
The major archive of Breakey’s work — traditional photographs as well as photograms — is held by the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, San Marcos. The Wittliff has more than 200 of her photograms on display, also through July 7. Las Sombras/The Shadows is the third Breakey book in the Wittliff’s Southwestern & Mexican Photography series. The first was Small Deaths: Photographs (2001), featuring pictures of dead birds, lizards, insects, and flowers. The second book, 2010’s Painted Light, is a retrospective, with images from nine suites of photographs, among them Still Life, Cactus, and Memories and Dreams, which features images of tiny feathery and furry corpses; her arrangements sometimes remind you of Joel-Peter Witkin’s work with the human dead.
“Mostly what I do are big, hand-colored portraits of dead birds,” Breakey said. “I’ve always used a camera. I’m still a mechanical-camera person, besides the photogram work. I still use a Hasselblad.” Breakey is an instructor in the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and she will teach a course there in July. She is represented locally by Photo-eye Gallery.
“Someone just found me a fawn,” she said during the interview in mid-January. “I have all these ranchers who are perpetually bringing me things.” That creature would pose a bit of achallenge, but there would be no problem fitting it onto the piece of photographic paper, which she buys in rolls 42 inches wide. “I can’t do an entire cow. The javelina I did must have weighed 100 pounds, and it’s hard on the back. And of course it’s nasty. Sometimes they’re spilling blood.”
This is an art that entails both the primitive and something ethereal. In her text for Las Sombras, the photographer says that she burns these “shadows” of animals and plants onto photographic paper “with light and with love.” ◀
“Las Sombras/The Shadows” by Kate Breakey is published by University of Texas Press.