Photography • Kate Breakey

Her large hand-tinted images memorialize tiny creatures.

KATE BREAKEY’S IMAGES OF DEATH may well bring her immortality. The Austin photographer’s Small Deaths series—elegiac portraits of tiny corpses, including insects, lizards, and especially birds—has won her international recognition. The 42-year-old Breakey is not the first artist to examine the realm of nature and the phenomenon of death, but three things set her work apart: the loving depiction of the subjects, the dramatic enlargement of the prints, and the hand-painting that enhances every sad little detail. Breakey conceived of the Small Deaths series in 1995, when she was balancing work as a photography lecturer at the University of Texas with long sessions in her home studio. One afternoon, she says, she attempted to rescue a sparrow from a cat, only to have the bird die in her hand. “I realized,” she recalls, “that I couldn’t help the circumstances of its death, but I could memorialize it in a photograph.” Today her photographs memorialize almost one hundred small creatures. By enlarging each final print to a 32-inch square, she also increases its poignancy, and as a final tribute she paints the subject, applying several layers of transparent oils and then tracing over feathers, scales, and other features with colored pencils. The results put her “in a class by herself,” says Bill Wittliff, who has purchased 94 Breakey images for the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. “Her pictures are so lovingly felt. They deliver the content of her heart.”

Texans may find many of her subjects—a cardinal, a dragonfly, a gecko—ordinary, but to Breakey, a native of South Australia, they are actually exotic. “The first time I found a dead blue jay in the back yard, I was overwhelmed,” she says with a grin. “I thought, ‘What a beautiful color! What a beautiful bird!’ I had no idea how common it was.” Friends and neighbors have nurtured her interest: “I’m always finding a little dead lizard in my mailbox, with a note saying, ‘Thought you’d like this.’”

Born in Adelaide, Breakey grew up in the coastal town of Port Lincoln. She attended art school for seven years, then began teaching while pursuing photography on her own. Early subjects included aborigines and the Australian bush, and even then she favored painting, which allowed her to enjoy more than one medium at a time. “Photography is magic in its own mysterious chemical way, but I love pigment—the color, the smell, the whole tactile thing.”

Breakey came to Texas in 1988 after her husband, molecular biologist Paul Krieg, accepted a position at UT. “When I moved to Texas, it was really quite scary to realize that the source of my art—Australia—was suddenly gone. But then I started the process of discovering Texas. Everything was different—the smell, the sky, the shape of the leaves, the crispness of the grass. And, of course, the birds and lizards and other little creatures.” The irony is that, although the international photography and art communities have long since labeled Breakey a Texas artist, Austin is in fact losing her to Tucson, where her husband will pursue research at the University of Arizona. She laments leaving Texas but welcomes the chance to explore another world. “I’ve always had a rapport with nature,” Breakey says. “It will see me through.”

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