Kate Breakey’s sensuous, sumptuously colored, riveting pictures depict once-living things—birds and flowers, mostly, but also a lizard, a dragonfly, a butterfly, a moth— that have died and found their way into her studio, to lie beneath her lens and undergo what might be described as a solemn, protracted rite of passage. Some of these she herself comes across in her peregrinations; some reach her by other paths. (“My friends…give me small dead things as gifts,” Breakey writes.)
In their original form, these images generally measure 32 inches square. The substrate of each is a gelatin-silver print, a considerable enlargement of a 2-1⁄4-inch blackand-white negative of an extreme close-up of the image’s subject and a decidely larger-than-life rendering thereof. Breakey then slowly, carefully hand-paints each print with transparent oils and colored pencils, producing a complexly worked, densely layered final object.
Taken as a whole, they constitute a series of portraits of the dead. Within the medium of photography, these images hark back to the poignant hand-colored postmortem daguerreotypes of the mid-1800s, with the cheeks and clothing of deceased individuals tinted to evoke the subject while alive; and they link themselves to much work that’s been done since, up into the present day, by photographers as different from each other (and from Breakey) as Frederick Sommer, Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Jayne Hinds Bidaut, to name just a few.
For all their gravity and reverence, Breakey’s studies come across as neither fearsome nor fearful. She consistently presents these creatures—even if clearly defunct, even when stripped down to the bone—as vessels of life. Her treatment of their residual vestiges evokes the sense of touch without the slightest hint of revulsion. The quality of her attention and activity—first the scrutiny of these flora and fauna through the camera, then the painstaking manual re-creation of their living glory—emanates the deepest respect for these beings, along with an evident belief that their passing matters.
This reverential treatment of them post mortem functions as an equivalent of the ancient funerary process of embalming: the ritual anointing, perfuming and wrapping of the body that serves at once as a physical farewell to the mortal remains of the departed and as symbolic preparation of the now-freed spirit for its next phase. This caring for the dead contains a poignant mirroring of the birth process, maternal and tender in its feelingtone; not surprisingly, therefore, many cultures and belief systems choose women as the appropriate agents for this procedure.
The attentive viewer cannot help but sense the deeply affectional core of this project. Demonstrably, Breakey accepts as a given that these creatures partake of the sacral; she portrays them as if they not only have a right to the tree of life but can claim an equal place in any afterlife one might imagine possible, and deserve honoring with no less splendid a send-off than kings and saints receive.
Breakey speaks of this method as an “attempt to memorialize these individual creatures as little representatives of all the lives and deaths that we disregard.” Yet those “disregarded lives” are not only the brief existences of plants and small animals but also, symbolically, those of the millions of bigger creatures too—including most humans—who will die without fanfare. We are all tiny and fragile in the larger scale of things; we all want our lives—and our deaths—to matter. This is, I think, part of the reason Breakey’s images touch us so deeply: because they represent a version of what each of us would hope to have happen when we pass on.
Which is to say that they reveal a philosophical and spiritual premise whose roots lie deep in the history of the still life—which, as a form of art, originates in seventeenth-century Holland. The Dutch term for such work, stilleven, translates simply as “motionless models,” and, from the beginning, many still-life images served primarily as decorative replications in oil paint of the trappings of the successful life of the emerging bourgeoisie. Since shortly after the birth of the form, however, others have been fashioned to operate as meditations on mortality and the flesh; it’s from that branch of the still-life tradition that Breakey’s work emerges, and to that line of inquiry that it contributes. The French version of the term still life, notably, is nature morte–“dead nature.”
An undercurrent of lamentation runs through this suite of pictures, which functions overall as a threnody. Understandably, in that regard, many of the images strike a somber, mournful note. Yet these images reveal themselves as not exclusively elegiac. Some radiate a tranquil acceptance of death. Others of them seem to encode screams of anger at fate. Still more appear celebratory and joyful; indeed, many of the flowers, in particular, seem to relish their own decay, proud of the withering of their fleshy forms. All are rendered as noble and heroic.
Her latest works—an ongoing series of photograms that describe, in silhouette, the bodies of animals and fragments of vegetation—seem a logical extension of what preceded them. Breakey has been making photograms of the subjects of her hand-colored works for many years; now she’s turning those into finished pieces, sometimes presented as installations. She places her subject—a coyote, an owl, a rabbit, a snake, a floral stalk—directly on light-sensitive paper. After exposure, she sepia-tones the one-of-a-kind print, then coats it with a translucent golden-toned paint. The finished prints end up in old thriftshop frames. No two of these pieces are alike. “The photograms,” she says, “burn into the photographic papers with light and love.”
Kate Breakey was born in August of 1957 in Adelaide, South Australia, the daughter of nature lovers. She grew up some 200 miles west of there, in the coastal fishing town of Port Lincoln, where she wandered the countryside in her childhood and adolescence, discovering in herself a rapport with the natural world. She earned a B.F.A. from the University of South Australia in 1981. During that period she found photography, or vice versa, acting upon what she calls “my own animal longing to distill color and light into explanations.” Life eventually brought her to the U.S. southwest; presently she lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.
Photography is a necessary, inevitable component of her project. Certainly these images would reverberate much differently if they did not give us clues to their photographic basis. By the same token, they would echo in quite different fashion if they prioritized impartial observation over poetic engagement and interpretation. Of the media she blends in her work, Breakey says, “I begin with a photograph—a highly convincing illusion, a map of reality, a piece of evidence rendered in silvergray tones. This I smear and coat with oil paint in many transparent layers—the layers of emotional subjectivity—lies, dreams, delusions, exaggerations and embellishments. If I am lucky the media combine, become enmeshed and inseparable, a curious marriage of what might be real and what is imagined or desired. They now collude to play with my perceptions about what truth is, my favourite game. I am a sensualist. I admit to my seduction by texture, colour, light and form. It is my deepest pleasure, my lovely addiction.”