THE ANIMAL PHOTOGRAPHER
Rachael Hale McKenna
It was a pig that kickstarted the career of Rachael Hale McKenna – and not even a particularly attractive one.
That short, fat, hairy kunekune was the subject of an image that launched the arts graduate on an incredible path that has seen her photographs adorn everything from greetings cards to stationery in stores around the globe.
At the age of 23, Rachael had already excelled at both Auckland Society of Arts and Wellington Polytech Design School, not to mention the three years spent working with legendary baby portrait photographer Anne Geddes.
Keen to set up her own business, but lacking the funds, Rachael entered a photographic competition to win a set of studio lights – the main criteria being that the image had to include a watch.
“I just woke up one night with this idea – I could put a watch on a pig,” recalls the mum-of-one, who as a student had loved taking pictures of animals.
“It was a bit random, but I found this incredibly ugly pig, I made a watch with a belt and an alarm clock that went around
/ the pig’s neck and I photographed it with a large-format camera. It won me the competition, and then, as a result of the publicity, a publishing company approached me and commissioned me to do an entire animal range based on that one image – it started my whole career.”
Known then as Rachael Hale, she became internationally renowned for her creative portraits of animals, from snoozing tigers to dogs on roller skates.
Getting animals to play ball in a photo shoot is no easy feat, but the 47-year-old’s photography skills combined with her calm manner and innate empathy with animals are a winning combination.
“I reckon I must have been a dog in a past life,” she says with a laugh, adding that whether working with grumpy lion cubs or skittish cats, “there is something about me that animals just seem to love.”
Just over a decade ago, Rachael decided her career needed a tweak. She had begun to feel unfulfilled by creating the staged, cutesy shots that had made her so successful, so she left what had become a multi-million dollar enterprise, to instead focus on what she loved.
“I have always been the type to follow my heart,” she explains. “If it’s really what I believe in, I’ll do it – and my passion lies in creating really beautiful, natural images.”
With husband Andy McKenna, Rachael moved to France, where she travelled around taking photographs for bestselling book The French Cat – having a baby along the way, Charlize, now eight. Next, the family moved to the US to shoot The New York Dog.
But being in the Big Apple didn’t give the trio a taste for the city, and on their return to New Zealand it was the rural life they craved – not least because it suits the fourth member of their family, Flash the dog.
Chatting to NEXT while walking the Jack Russell through the farmland behind her Wanaka home, Rachael reveals she’d never return to Auckland – “because it’s so limiting what you can do with your pets.”
And the beauty of her craft is it can be done anywhere.
The photographer, who has sold more than three million books, released her
19th, The New Zealand Cat, last year and is now focusing on private commissions. While it’s work that is less abundant outside the main centres, she has found a way to juggle it all. “I’m often in Auckland or Christchurch and I do shoots overseas,” she says as she watches her dog Flash chase after rabbits.
“But I’ve chosen to live here because it’s the lifestyle I want, it’s just so beautiful, there are no limitations.”
In essence, it’s picture perfect.
Rachael has a skill for bringing personalitiesthrough in her work.