A couple of years ago, the filmmaker Mark Zemel went to a cat show in Stamford, Connecticut, with his girlfriend as part of his birthday festivities. Once inside the venue, he noticed a flurry of activity taking place around a camping tent. It turned out someone had set up a photo studio inside the tent and was working away happily snapping the show cats. The photographer’s name was Larry Johnson; after Mark watched him at work and introduced himself, he decided that he’d make a fine foil for a documentary.
Titled The Purrtraitist, the 10-minute flick follows Larry at a cat show in Parsippany, New Jersey. As the footage unravels, the film reveals itself to be equal parts a portrait of a feline photographer extraordinaire and a window into a world of competing kitties and the characters behind them.
With The Purrtraitist now available to view online, I spoke to Mark about his subject’s style of portraiture, the lure of cat shows, and the chances of Larry snapping a session with his own rescue, Noodle.
Catster: Can you remember your first impressions of the cat show in Stamford?
Mark Zemel: Yeah, it was actually my first-ever cat show. I’d been to dog shows before but never a cat show. It was a fun thing to do on a Saturday and everyone was really nice, and we saw a bunch of cats that I’d never seen before or even knew existed. And then when I saw Larry working, I thought he was amazing.
How did Larry react when you approached him about doing a documentary?
He was open to it. He loves animals so much that it was more a question of when we could do it with his schedule. I actually met his wife at another cat show in New York and we managed to set a plan to follow him for the weekend in Parsippany.
How would you describe Larry’s approach to photographing cats?
When Larry is photographing cats he’s very locked in. He was very clear with me when I was shooting that I could not get in the way and that I could not disturb the cats. I mean, I didn’t want to — the whole point was to show him in his natural element.
I noticed that a lot of the people who were at the show had worked with him before, and they’d bring cats over to his tent because he calms them down before the show. The cats were so much more relaxed and ready to be in the show after they’d had a session with Larry.
From the documentary, Larry seems to play around with the cats a lot.
Yeah, he’s very serious about it but he’s also really playful with the cats — he doesn’t get them too amped up, but he’ll manage to get them into the poses he wants to get to show off the qualities of the breed. He was telling me how different cats have to show different things — he’s really focused about getting what he wants.
Do the cats he’s photographing seem to enjoy the experience?
It seems like in a lot of ways they’re not into it at first — like how would they know what’s going on anyway? — but the vast majority of them get really into playing. Their owners are usually there so he coaches them, too. At the beginning he’ll have the owners nearby so they can pet the cat, but by the end they’ll be playing along with him.
What sort of reaction have you had from people who’ve viewed The Purrtraitist?
So far people seem to like it. I think Larry’s such a genuine character and I wanted that to come through. I wanted his voice to be the one that comes through, and I think people react well to it.
Did you learn anything about human behavior from filming at the cat show?
Yeah, I have a cat myself — just a cat we rescued from the street — and I didn’t really know much about all the breeds out there, but really it’s just like any hobby or culture. It’s nice to experience something new, and there’s a level of of expertise and a level of knowledge that I had no contact with before, so seeing that was kinda cool.
Who’s your own cat?
That’s Noodle. We found her in the parking lot behind my building. We rescued her there.
Has she been photographed by Larry?
Not yet! The problem is he lives in Baton Rouge so I can’t just bring Noodle over to his studio. I have to wait for him to come up to New York. We’ve been planning on it and looking at his schedule to try and get it done. But Noodle also isn’t a show cat — she’s an apartment cat — so it’s gonna be a tougher shoot. Show cats are trained to be around people and not get nervous, so I’m not sure how Noodle is gonna react.
And now, check out The Purrtraitist in full below.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.