Knowing that I delight in all things old, weird, and cat-related, my friend Rachel presented me with her latest used-bookstore find: How to Photograph Your Cat, a 1955 how-to pamphlet commissioned by Puss ’n Boots (the biggest cat food brand in the country at the time).
For 25 cents and a few proofs of purchase, Puss ‘n Boots buyers could marinate in the professional expertise of Walter Chandoha, “the world’s most famous cat photographer” — and 60 years later, I did, too. Reader, I will never be the same.
According to the pamphlet’s intro, Meet Walter Chandoha (You’ll Like Him!), Chandoha “found himself in feline photography quite by accident. An Army combat photographer during World War II, and a college student and part-time lensman immediately thereafter, he discovered a waif kitten in the snow outside his home on Long Island during the Blizzard of ’47. He took her in, warmed and fed her, and was so fetched with her grateful expression that he couldn’t resist ‘shooting a few.’ From there on, it was catnip all the way!”
Chandoha, the intro continues, “prescribes two rules for cat photographs. One, ‘know your cat. Learn her moods and habits–they’re surprisingly regular and predictable. Then work with her, taking eating shots when she’s normally eating, and playtime shots when she’s normally playing.’ Two, ‘shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot! No photographer does his best the first time. The more shots you take, the better your chances are.'”
WC would probably turn his nose up at the super-simplified iPhone camera I use for most of my cat photos, but I think he’d appreciate how technology has facilitated his “shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot-shoot!” approach. I spent a few days following his tips (and my two cats) with my 21st-century tech.
Your cat as model
True, some cats love to mug and prance before the camera. These are the hams of the cat world; they make a photographer’s life simple. Others, like children when relatives visit, must be coaxed and bribed to perform.[…]
Fortunately, cats are creatures of habit. Even their quirks are habitual. If you get to know your cat’s habits and shoot when he is doing something typical, you’ll not only win the cat’s cooperation … but you’ll come up with better pictures.
Shots of your cat snoozing offer good possibilities. Notice when he takes his customary nap … as well as where. […] Then … be there with your camera loaded!
WC makes a solid point here, but it’s difficult to take his advice when it comes to my older cat, Steve, whose most predictable move is a long nap on top of my sports bras; I can hardly hide in my own underwear drawer and wait for him to roll in. I turned to Matty, my younger cat, who can be relied upon to curl up on the corner of our freshly made bed while I’m taking my morning shower.
Call a cat-calendar publisher and MoMA, you guys: We’ve got some art right here.
Matty can also be relied upon to lurk between the shower curtain and liner when I take bubble baths, so later that evening, I climbed into the tub and promised myself I wouldn’t drop my phone.
Lesson I: Remember how reflective your cat’s eyes are when you choose what to wear to a photo shoot in, say, the tub. Lesson II: If you skip ahead to Your cat in movies and are inspired to “try for movement,” consider how scratching a shower curtain could encourage a young Siamese cat to leap into the air and, ultimately, your bath.
For cats like this you need an assistant. Sit your assistant with her back to the camera. Drape a blanket over her back, shoulders, and head. Focus close-up on the draped shoulder. When you’re ready to shoot, place the cat on your assistant’s shoulder, with the cat’s face toward the camera. Have your assistant grasp the cat’s body gently but firmly, while she speaks soothingly to the cat. You’ll have time to take a couple of exposures before the cat wriggles out of position.
My cats don’t “coldly say ‘no’ to all things photographic” like the felines WC describes, but I couldn’t resist trying this pose. With my husband as conscripted portraitist, I sat in one of our dining chairs, threw a blanket over my head, and asked him to drape Matty over my shoulder. As WC suggests, we went for a close-up.
I like to think Chandoha would appreciate this one. (I could present it to him and find out — according to the Times, he’s living across the river in New Jersey — but it’s far too hot to go outside.) I, in turn, can’t stop looking at the zoomed-out version of that same shot.
It’s a cat-lady version of 19th-century ‘ghost mother’ photography. It’s the most artistic thing that’s ever happened to a West Elm ombré throw. It’s … my new favorite photo of myself. Chandoha, you mad genius, tell me more!
Kittens are full of surprises
Cats, as we’ve seen, generally are solid citizens who live pretty much by regular schedules. Kittens, however, are unpredictable. Perhaps because everything is so new to them, they themselves don’t know how they’ll act. And so they’re full of surprises.
We have no kitten, sadly, as we deemed it unwise to steal the calico shop-kitten currently galloping up and down the aisles of our neighborhood pet-supply store, because we’d be obvious culprits and because we maintain a strict 1:1 lap-to-cat ratio in our apartment. That said, this is a principle worth illustrating with a picture I took when Steve was a baby because WOULD YOU JUST LOOK AT THAT SASSY FACE.
Remember, you want a photo of the cat … not of the fancy wallpaper or flower bed. Pose your cat against a plain wall … or a barely patterned fabric or drape … or a window shade … or a roll of seamless paper (the professional’s favorite background.)
Well, they can’t all be winners.
Chandoha’s book has a commercial agenda, of course — it was commissioned by a cat food company, after all, and the last page is a Feeding Your Cat section on his exacting standards for his models (who eat only Puss ‘n Boots cat food, naturally) — but it’s also helpful and rather touching (in the Kittens and Children section, WC mentions that his daughter Maria’s first word wasn’t “Momma or Papa … but ‘meow'” ).
What’s more, in the foreword he gives “affectionate thanks” to Minguina, Jet, Spook, Loco, and Kome, the five cats “without whose patient posing this book would have been impossible.” In 1955, cat-thanking wasn’t exactly a mainstream practice, even in materials marketed to cat lovers. I might look WC up in Jersey sometime, actually; I’d like to thank him for the inspiration.
Read more by Lauren Oster.
About the author: Lauren Oster is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She and her husband share an apartment on the Lower East Side with Steve and Matty, two Siamese-ish cats. She doesn’t leave home without a book or two, a handful of plastic animals, Icelandic licorice mints, and her camera. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.