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.