Kate Kunath earned a BFA in photography from the University of Washington in Seattle. In her practice, she has sought to discover and illuminate the consequences of modern life, confront cultural mythologies, and challenge what we think we know. Provoked by themes of reproduction, modernization, and globalization. She has produced one series per year since arriving in New York in 2004. By focusing in depth on one topic at a time, Kate develops a personal and artistic investment in illuminating what naturally emerges from this investigation. With humor and tenderness, narratives develop organically, and the symmetry in nature and the human experience is explored.
Do you have a favorite rabbit in the series?
‘There are 45-50 breeds in total and it’s very hard to choose a favorite. Most of the breeders don’t have names for their champs because they don’t keep them as pets, so it’s hard to keep track of their names. I’m a sucker for the Angora rabbits, as in the angora sweater. One of my favorite moments was visiting the hall where they blow dry and comb out the angora hair. It was like a big tranny parlor. The biggest hair you have ever seen on any animal. It was fantastic. One of my favorite jobs at the show is the Breeding Chairman. He or she must be present when any of the breeders are planning to mate their rabbits. Sometimes the service is free, but other times they have to pay for the sex if the genetic material is valuable enough’.
How did you get into shooting bunnies with their owners and where and how were these photos captured?
‘Well, it’s always been a dream of mine to photograph rabbit breeders. I got my big break in 2004 at the American Rabbit Breeders Convention. I’m kidding, but there really is a Best in Show for bunnies every year, similar to the Westminster for dogs, without the high brow. The first time I went to a show, I was really impressed by the rabbit breeders, so I returned the following year with a photo studio. The rabbit Standard of Perfection is attained through a regimen of breeding and selecting, much more rapidly than a dog breeder, for example. Which means that they are culling, a process of removing the undesirable genes from the pool, by way of killing the rabbits for food or fur, or giving them to pet stores to sell. It doesn’t sound very pleasant coming from me but the rabbit breeders have a very eloquent way of stating things when it comes to the cycle of life. They are also very professional, as one can see from their expressions. Even proud. Their rabbits as subjects took away some of the anxiety of having their own portraits done. The portrait studio I set up at the show was well attended. I did over 100 portraits in a weeks time’.
The expressions of the owners holding the rabbits are almost as memorable as the rabbits themselves. Were their reactions spontaneous, or was it more the result of prompting on your behalf?
‘As a general rule in my photography, I am always letting my subjects know that they don’t have to smile. You’d be surprised, if people don’t have to smile, they generally don’t. And then there are others who just can’t help themselves. I found that if I asked them to relax and not smile they understood that I was attempting to take them seriously. Most of the time, no matter their expression, I was behind the camera thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, can this be real?’ There was one instance where the rabbit breeder was in a very good mood, and we were both laughing, so I went to press the shutter and just as I did his angora rabbit let out a big yawn. It happened so quickly that I wasn’t sure I had it, but when I got the film back I could see that I had captured a full set of yawning teeth- the only visible feature of the rabbit other than the fur. So there is room for spontaneity within this model. However, because taking humorous or ironic pictures in this situation was like shooting fish in a barrel, I thought it was a more just representation of the rabbit breeders if I tried to convey them as they saw themselves: as dignified, specialized professionals’.
Can you tell us about the equipment that you used for this shoot?
‘I shot this project with film using a Fugi 680, a medium format camera that has swings and tilts like a 4×5. I liked it because it gave me a little extra length in the torso and allowed me to keep both the rabbits and the people in focus’.