Rules are made for breaking, and New Zealand based photographer Rachael Hale McKenna has made a mockery of the somewhat tongue-in-cheek assertion that children and animals can be difficult to work with.
Indeed she’s made these two surprisingly similar subjects her life’s work, and in the process has acquired an international reputation and a legion of fans who adore her relaxed visual approach and the unerring knack that she has of creating images where everything just fits seamlessly together within a delightfully unarranged environment.
“I was one of the lucky ones in that I knew from the age of eight that I wanted to be a photographer,” she says. “I had hand-me-down kit given to me from an early age, and it just felt natural to go out and take pictures. I was never a 35mm shooter: my first serious camera was a Rolleiflex TLR and I moved on from there to a second hand Hasselblad 500C. I loved that camera and still have it: despite the fact that I don’t use it these days I would never get rid of it.”
After studying photography at Design School, Rachael had the good fortune to land a job as an assistant to the world-renowned baby photographer Anne Geddes in 1991, and after leaving to travel the world she returned to New Zealand two years later to set up her own studio, which specialised in animal and child photography.
Following a re-brand of her business in 2007, Rachael decided to change tack and to look at moving her photography outside of the studio and into the environment. “I just wanted to try something that was new and different for me,” she says. “I was looking for a project that would be very different to anything I’d done before, and so I approached my publisher in 2010 to see if they might be interested in publishing a book of pictures that featured cats in the landscape of France. They liked the idea and so off we went: my husband had worked in France before and so we knew the country a little, and we had a baby daughter and so it was a chance for us all to be together. It was my dream job, travelling through the country for six months taking photos of beautiful cats in the character-filled countryside and villages, and I loved every minute.”
The couple prepared for the trip by contacting country hotels all around the country, enquiring if they might have cats that could be included in the book. The response they received was overwhelming and, with an itinerary to follow, they had a structure in place. “We had such a tight budget to follow,” Rachael recalls. “We would stop at campsites and hostels, and sometimes the establishments we were photographing would give us a discount. I set out to photograph cats in the streets as well, and it all built up into a travelogue of the country, where the surroundings were as important as the cats themselves.”
Crossing continents for cats and dogs:
When the book, ‘The French Cat,’ was published in 2011 it was an instant hit, and soon Rachael was back out on the roads of France working on a sequel, ‘The French Dog,’ which was published the following year. From there she looked for a follow up project that would explore the same themes but in a different context, and the upshot was a move to New York for six months during 2013 while she shot pictures for ‘The New York Dog,’ which was published in early 2014.
“It was a very different project to the ones I’d previously done: for a start, dogs in New York aren’t allowed to roam free the way they are in France, and so there was no question of me photographing them in the streets without permission. So, before we arrived in the city I’d put the word out that I was looking to shoot this book and I was inundated with response. From there it was a case of choosing which ones would fit my brief the best. I looked for a good cross section of breeds that came from different parts of town, so that I could cover as many different aspects of New York as possible.”
Throughout all three projects Rachael has stuck with her medium format principles, and it’s very much the way that she’s comfortable working. “I’ve always had an affinity with the larger formats,” she says. “When I was starting out I also really enjoyed using 4x5in cameras, and they taught me the patience that’s needed when you’re looking for pictures, and this is really important when you’re working with children and animals. It’s not about spraying a scene with pictures it’s about building a rapport with the subject, and once you’ve done that you pick your moment to shoot.
“Even these days when I’m working with a digital Hasselblad and have less need to worry about how many frames I go through, I still only shoot around five to six images of each scene. People can get lazy when they think it doesn’t matter, but that’s poor discipline: I still take a lot of time over my pictures but I only shoot when I think I’ve got something worth capturing.”
Her traditional approach extends to the fact that she stayed loyal to her film-based Hasselblads until she was finally convinced that the quality of digital had finally caught up, and she shoots the majority of her work using an 80mm standard lens, occasionally working with a 55mm if the situation demands it. She also largely eschews artificial light in favour of ambient if she possibly can, believing that it looks more natural and gives her more of a connection with her subjects.
“I’ve been working with H4D and H5D cameras,” she says, “which are fantastic. I have to say, however, that looking ahead; I’ve got one eye on an H5D-50c, with its CMOS sensor. The quality of the images are exactly what I would expect from a Hasselblad, but the fact that I could maybe push the ISO up a little more would give me just a little more to play with when the light is low.”
With new projects on the go, including a ‘Kiwi Cats’ book, Rachael has plenty to keep herself occupied and lots of reasons to stay busy behind her camera. Her impeccable eye for a picture and total affinity with animals and children ensure that her army of fans will have plenty to keep them happy over the next few years.