Inspired by Nature: Kate Breakey’s Yume exhibit highlights early photographic process

By Laura Latzko

Photograms, an early form of photography, were created by placing objects on light-sensitive paper, exposing them to light and creating negative shadows.

Modern-day artists like Kate Breakey continue to be inspired by and use this process.

Although the Tucson-based artist tends to do more digital photography these days, she has developed an immense body of photograms. Like her other work, these pieces focus on nature — animals, plants and flowers.

From Thursday, January 27, to Wednesday, March 30, the Yume Japanese Gardens of Tucson will present “Kate Breakey: Photograms,” an exhibition dedicated to botanical-themed photograms of Southwest plants such as the mallow, gold poppy and Mexican bird of paradise.

Many of these pieces come from her collection “Las Sombras/The Shadows,” for which she captured insects, plants and animals using  the photogram process over 10 years.

Other artists’ works from the late 1800s, including process developer Henry Fox Talbot, inspired Breakey to create photograms. She was also struck by pieces by British photographer Anna Atkins, who captured seaweed and algae using a similar early technique called cyanotype, which produces a blue-and-white image resembling a blueprint.

“Before we had photography, the only way to try to make a scientific document was you had to do a drawing or painting,” Breakey says.

“Lots of times, drawings were fairly subjective and not even very accurate. When photography came along, that was the big thing in science. You could actually get an image of something that was a real record.”

The exhibition will also include pieces from her “Orotones” collection, in which she printed photographs on the back of glass and gilded them with gold leaf.

The thought behind it

Before an exhibition, Breakey will plan how she wants to display her pieces.

“I figure out what the size of the wall is, and I lay them out on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle and rearrange them until I like the way that everything looks and fits together,” Breakey says.

“And then I stand on a ladder and photograph it from as high as I can get. And then I have guide when I take it all down there in boxes. I can put it on the wall in the design that I have figured out.”

Spending time in South Australia and Texas, Breakey has lived in Tucson since the 1990s.

While in rural Australia, she grew up with “plants and animals all around. I was taught an interest in natural history and biology growing up as a kid. I had access to all of it.

“Before I came to the U.S. in 1988, I was a working artist in Australia. My theme in those days was the Australian environment. I never really stopped. Every time I would go into another environment, I would get interested in that.”

Now in Marana, she lives in a home surrounded by native plants and desert at the base of Safford Peak.

“As a naturalist, I’ve always been interested in all of the flora and fauna in a particular area,” Breakey says. “I’ve always acquired reference books so that I get to know all of the birds, beetles and snakes. I have great reverence for it all.

“I love the Sonoran Desert. It is one of the most interesting places. People don’t realize how rich the desert is. They think of it as being boring, stark and dry. As you know, the Sonoran Desert is unique.”

On her property she finds creatures and plants, which she uses in her work.

“Every time I’ve found a snake or a scorpion, I would run out and make a photogram of it. I just liked the idea that it was primitive record of something, that its body was going to be long gone and I would have this image of it forever,” Breakey says.

During her career, Breakey has hosted more than 100 one-person and over 50 group exhibitions. Many of these exhibitions have featured photograms and orotones.

Breakey was trained as a painter and printmaker first in art school. From there, she moved onto photography. She often combines these techniques

“I embellish with all of these different things that I do,” Breakey says.

“There are lots of people out there doing alternative processes. So, they aren’t just photographs. They are added to in some way.”

Recently, she showcased bird photograms as part of an Atlanta Exhibition called “Three Billion” about species that have been lost in North America.

Through her work, she hopes to get others to think about nature in a deeper way.

“I hope that I actually can in some way inspire people to take notice and to care,” Breakey says.   


More Info

What: “Kate Breakey: Photograms”

When: Thursday, January 27, to Wednesday, March 30; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Thursdays to Sundays

Where: Yume Japanese Gardens of Tucson, 2130 N. Alvernon Way

Cost: Admission to exhibition is free with garden admission, which is $13 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, $9 for students and military, $6 for children 3 to 15, and free for children 2 and under

Info: 303-3945,