The Very First Pets Ever To Be Photographed

triptych of three 19th century pet portraits. Two dogs and a cat.

For nearly as long as there have been cameras, there have been photos of pets, some of which date back to the early 1800s.

Animals are the perfect companion, friend, and as the history of photography shows, photo subject. The advancement of camera and photographic technology is marked by many things, not the least of which is an ever-improving roster of pet portraits.

William Henry Fox Talbot Makes Photo-cat-ic History

Photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot changed everything when he invented the negative-positive photo process in 1833. As a polymath in every sense of the word, he frequently reproduced different sorts of images as he dialed in his photographic process.

“How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself,” the Englishman wrote in his journal in the early 1830s. And as he proved, it was possible.

One of his earlier photographic reproductions was creating a calotype — or maybe “catotype” — of a detailed cat drawing.

 William Henry Fox Talbot photographic reproduction of a cat drawing. Drawing of a cat.
William Henry Fox Talbot did many photographic reproductions in the 1830s while developing and fine-tuning his photographic process. This reproduction of a cat, believed to be one of artist J.M. Burbank’s favorites, is perhaps the first time an animal was ever put to photographic emulsion. | The National Science and Media Museum

“This cute kitty is believed to be a copy of a favorite cat’ by J.M. Burbank, an artist who exhibited animal pictures during the 1830s in Britain,” explains Ruth Quinn, Curator of Photography and Photographic Technology at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England.

Talbot’s Process Captures Lovely Portrait of a Real Animal

After continually refining his process, Talbot’s photographic technique was introduced into broader society in the 1840s, albeit at a select number of studios. Reserved for the cultural elite, these studios put mostly people to photo paper, but one customer, celebrity author Mary Mitford, brought her dog to her portrait session in 1847.

Portrait of a dog laying down in a studio. 1847. Sepia toned dog photo.
In 1847, celebrity author Mary Mitford brought her dog to a portrait studio and insisted that the photographer take a picture of the pup. The photographer relented, and the well-behaved pooch stayed still for four minutes. | The National Science and Media Museum

As Quinn explains, Mitford insisted that the studio’s photographer, Nicolaas Henneman, photograph her dog. The photographer was skeptical the dog could sit still long enough — these early photos took minutes to expose. However, the adorable pooch sat perfectly still. Well-behaved? Maybe. Bored senseless? Probably.

Daguerre Joins the Photographic Fray — The First Live Animal Ever Photographed

Talbot wasn’t the only person working on photographic processes, and Miss Mary Mitford’s dog was not the first live animal to be photographed.

Contemporaneously with Talbot, Louis Daguerre was working hard to develop a photographic process in the 1830s. The eponymous “Daguerreotype” was announced in France in 1839. While it relied on materials that would eventually fall out of favor, like mercury vapor, it produced incredibly sharp and detailed photographs. Some of them are remarkably famous, like the first authenticated image ever taken of Abraham Lincoln.

The first photo of an animal could be an 1842 Daguerreotype of a cow. While not specifically a pet, although cows certainly can be great pets, this 182-year-old photo was captured by French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.

A Daguerreotype photograph of a cow in front of a wagon. Sepia colors and warped edges.
This Daguerreotype of a cow in front of farm equipment was captured in Rome in 1842 by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey and may be the first photo of a real-life animal ever.

Beyond famous historical figures and livestock, dogs also enjoyed the benefits of Daguerreotype photography. The anonymous wiry pooch couldn’t sit still enough for their portrait but surely tried their best.

A Daguerreotype portrait of a small, fluffy, light-colored dog.
Daguerreotype portrait of a dog. The date is unspecified, although likely in the 1840s or 1850s. | The National Science and Media Museum

The internet loves cats, and Harvard University believes the earliest known photo of a live cat was made as early as the 1840s. The Daguerreotype below shows cats in their most authentic spirit — being a bit uncooperative.

A side profile of a cat drinking from a bowl. The cat is on a table. The black and white image is framed by a yellow and red border.
This Daguerreotype of a cat is from as early as the 1840s. | Harvard University’s Houghton Library

Hardened Cat Looks Tough as Nails in His ‘Cabinet Card’ Moment

Like many technological advancements, cameras and even photographs themselves underwent the “make it smaller” phase of progress. In the 1860s, “the cabinet card became the next big photographic trend,” explains Quinn.

A sepia photograph of a cat on top of a large barrel next to an alcohol bottle and a glass.
This “cabinet card” of a tough-looking kitty was captured in the 1860s by an undisclosed photographer. | This Daguerreotype of a cat is from as early as the 1840s. | The National Science and Media Museum

These were the precursor to the wallet-sized photos that so many schoolchildren are all too familiar with. The cabinet card was designed to be easy to share and show. The thin paper was coated with egg white to create an albumen print. The clever technique has fallen out of favor, but this cat portrait is timeless.

Stereoscopic Pet Portraiture

Stereo photography took off in the 1850s, and of course, people wanted to capture their beloved furry friends in pseudo-3D.

Stereo photograph of a dog tied to a chair. Sepia.
This stereograph of a watchdog was captured in 1861.

Turning Pet Photography Into a Business

In Brighton, England, photographer Harry Pointer (1822-1889) was likely the first to turn pet photography into a full-blown profession. Like Old Batchelor seen above, Pointer’s cabinet, or carte-de-visite, photos focused solely on cats.

Triptych of pictures of cats from the 1870s. Sepia colors. Cats in funny poses.
Harry Pointer (1822-1889) flanked by his cats. Pointer specialized in taking photos of cats in various poses. He sold his images alongside funny quips and greeting cards.

The Unconventional Career of Harry Whittier Frees

While Pointer purposefully got involved in photographing pets, Harry Whittier Frees fell into his unconventional career through serendipity.

The American photographer, born in 1879 in Pennsylvania, put a paper party hat on a family cat as a joke. In perhaps the most critical moment of his career, Frees took a quick photo of the feline. People loved it, and he was soon taking more pictures of animals in humorous poses and costumes.

Two cats sitting across from each other at a small table with a birthday cake in between them.
‘The Birthday Cake’ by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914. | Library of Congress
Four kittens tangled up in yarn and fabric.
‘The Entanglement’ by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914. | Library of Congress
A cat posed to look like it is hanging up laundry on a clothesline.
‘Hanging up the Wash’ by Harry Whittier Frees, 1914. | Library of Congress

He made his living creating novelty postcards, selling prints, and taking pet portraits for magazines and books.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Frees once said that taking the portraits, which involved stiff costumes and posing mechanisms, was so stressful and challenging that he could only work for three months of the year. It’s easy to imagine it was much more stressful for the subjects.

Improving Camera Technology Gave Rise to Snapshot Photography

As cameras improved, enabling shorter exposure times and cheaper materials, more people could take pictures. And like so many photographers today who pick up their first digital camera, early 20th-century photographers tested their newest equipment on their pets.

A young girl holding her cat. Early 20th century, rural.
This photo was taken sometime between 1917 and 1924 during French reconstruction following World War I. | The Morgan Library and Museum
A kitten climbing a wire mesh door. Black and white.
‘Kitten, on wire mesh door,’ captured on March 19, 1937 by Norman Herfort | State Library of New South Wales

The History of Photography Itself Lives Through Pet Portraits

While nearly 200-year-old photos of people, famous or not, move the needle for people today, pictures of animals are timeless. Pets are always there for us, and because they’re there and we love them, they are the perfect subject for every photographer. Whether developing a photographic technique like Talbot or Daguerre, making a living, or just trying to make people smile, photos of animals have been an integral part of photography since its earliest days.

Image credits: Featured image courtesy of the National Science and Media Museum in England. The museum is currently closed for renovations, although its website remains active. The museum will reopen this summer.