THE AN­I­MAL PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Rachael Hale McKenna

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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.

THE BRAIN­WAVE

“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.

BE­ING BOOK­ISH

“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.

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