In the internet age, we are all cat photographers. One study found that in Britain alone, more than 3.8 million photos and clips of cats are shared each day — twice the number of selfies shared (we love our cats more than we love ourselves) and more than twice the number of dog photos shared.
Once upon a time, though, there was but One Cat Photographer to Rule Them All. His name was Walter Chandoha. Born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920, Chandoha started his career after World War II by photographing a stray kitten he found in the snow near his home in Queens. Soon, his angelically backlit, nauseatingly cute cat photos were winning prizes and appearing in magazines from National Geographic to Life.
A new book from Aperture, Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer, compiles his best feline glamour shots, which straddle the line between commercial portraiture and fine art photography. “With the Internet awash in cat pictures, Chandoha’s images might be seen as the forefather to them all,” David La Spina and Brittany Hudak write in the book’s introduction. “They bear examination not only for their singular charm, but also for the way Chandoha established a vocabulary of the studio animal portrait with his signature look, utilizing clean, brightly colored backdrops and high-key ‘glamour’ backlighting of his tiny, fuzzy subjects.”
This isn’t the first book of Chandoha’s work, but it’s the first to present it as art, and the first to frame Chandoha as the godfather of a now ubiquitous genre. Chandoha has published over 30 books of cat photography, including All Kinds of Cats (1952), How to Photograph Cats, Dogs, and Other Animals (1973), The Literary Cat (1977), and Walter Chandoha’s Book of Cats and Kittens (1983). Since the late 1940s, his images have also appeared in countless ads and on packaging for pet-food and other products. (“Due to their association with softness, my cat photos even ended up on a package for brassieres,” Chandoha says in the Aperture book.)
What’s the secret to a good, successful cat photograph? “I would say, for my photographs, I like the eye contact,” Chandoha says in an interview printed in the book. “Norman Rockwell was a real influence. The nice thing about the Rockwell pictures is that the line of sight is always centralized. If there were two people, their eye attention was directed to one focal point. It’s the same with cats! For example, if one cat would be looking out this way and another looking somewhere completely different, that’s no good. The eye contact has to be just right.”
Also important: patience, and having an “animal charmer and handler” on set. In Chandoha’s case, this handler was his wife, Maria, whom he calls “my secret to success.” “We’d spend half a day with a cat, just petting him or fixing my lights or doing something in the studio,” Chandoha says. “After a while the cat says, Hey, this is not so bad, he’s not harming me, you know. And then we’d take the cat and put him on the set and fire the strobes off a couple of times and finally the cat says, Hey, it’s just a light, what do I care? And then we’d begin shooting.”
Sadly for all the amateurs out there, Chandoha-level commercial success as a cat photographer probably isn’t possible in this day and age; it was partly the novelty of his work that made it famous at the time. With a seemingly infinite supply, demand for cat photos is now at an all-time low. Chandoha’s response to a question about other cat photographers who inspired him sounds unbelievable to modern ears: “I was never aware of cat photographs at all,” he says.