David Foster Wallace thought irony was ruining our culture, but it has certainly made cat memes entertaining. But have you ever wondered about the ancestors to our cute cat photos — what pictures of furry felines looked like in the un-ironic years before sites like LOLCats existed?
Yeah, I hadn’t either, until I stumbled upon a hoard of mothball-scented cat books that someone had discarded on a Park Slope, Brooklyn, stoop. The Common Sense Book of Kitten and Cat Care (1973) by Harry Miller was one of the gems of the pile, hearkening back to that bygone era, with photography by Walter Chandoha, a man you may have never heard of, but who was once the “world’s foremost photographer of cats.” Chandoha has published 26 books over several decades, including How to Photograph Your Cat (1955), Walter Chandoha’s Book of Kitten and Cats (1963) and The Literary Cat (1977).
In 2011, Chandoha explained his lifelong fascination with cats in an interview with the blog Photographers Speak. He said he first began photographing them one winter after World War II, when he found a homeless cat in the snow and began using her as a model. The photographer soon realized that people really, really liked his cat pictures. They won contests. Newspapers ran them. Magazines and ad agencies bought them. Through the years, he built up his name (and fortune) to the tune of around-the-clock purring. He now lives on a 46-acre farm in New Jersey, which I envision populated with plenty of happy felines, like the Dalmatian plantation at the end of 101 Dalmations.
In Common Sense, Chandoha’s cats appear posed like small children in soft, sweet light against green, blue, and purple backgrounds. In the text accompanying them, Miller writes, “To understand cats is a mark of keen intelligence.” But that praise (and Chandoha’s charming photographs) is tempered by the writer’s advice for dealing with unwanted kittens: “Pop them in a pail of water until they drown, or place them in a covered box, underlaid with a pad saturated with chloroform.”
It’s the kind of practical and calculated solution that would deeply trouble the more sensitive author Matt Warner of Cats of the World (1983). “You must get the kind of cat that you will want to live with for the rest of its life,” Warner implores. “If you are a true lover of cats—that is, a felinophile or ailurophile—this will not matter greatly, of course. You love all cats, and because cats are wise creatures, the feeling is undoubtedly mutual.” But what if you’re a jerk, and your cat is getting old, and you just, you know, want to kill it? “Remember the closeness of your cat over the years,” Warner advises, “and tolerate your old friend in these waning days of life.”
Cats of the World features mainly photography by Creszentia and Ted Allen, a husband-and-wife team who in the ’70s and ’80s rivaled Chandoha as the most famous cat photographers in the US. Their images capture the animals — which Warner describes as “a well-developed bundle of muscles and sensory organs in a fur wrapping” — in more natural settings. There are moody cats brooding quietly, curious cats with ears raised, hungry cats staring imploringly, focused cats rearing to pounce, angry cats covered in soapsuds, mystical cats gazing into the distance … you get the point. You may also be starting to wonder, once again, exactly why we’re all so interested in these animals. Warner wonders that too.
“Why do people tolerate what seems to be such a haughty, insolent, selfish, and demanding pet?” he asks. The answer isn’t simply that they’re cute; it’s because people “soon learn that these are projections of human traits onto feline personality…. [Cats are] essentially loners.” If we can’t figure them out, it’s because we can’t figure ourselves out. And it’s why we need each other.
“There are few greater compliments than the friendship of a cat,” another cat lover aptly writes in the 1976 Purina Handbook of Cat Care. “You cannot buy it or force it. You will receive your cat’s affection and high regard only when he thinks you have earned it, because a cat is demanding in his standards for human conduct … Think of the joy and pleasure your pet is bringing you, and consider making ‘Room for one more.’”
So you want more cats. Go ahead. Put your money where your meme is. There’s no shame in being the old cat lady (or gentleman). As Mark Twain once wrote, “A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove its title?”
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!