For the past 70 years, 95-year-old Walter Chandoha has made a career out of photographing cats for both editorial and commercial purposes. This year, Aperture published a collection of Chandoha’s colorful cat photographs in the appropriately titled Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer.
A self-described lover of photographing “everything and anything,” Chandoha first stumbled into cat photography after he found a stray kitten he named Loco in the snow. He took a few pictures of Loco, submitted them to various contests, and won a few prizes. But things didn’t get serious until the early 1950s when Chandoha began photographing in color. With help from his wife Maria, who was his art director, secretary, animal herder, and also the mother of their six children, he began to play around with a few different ideas, including photographing a kitten wearing a red Christmas ribbon. They submitted that image to some magazines and were thrilled when Woman’s Home Companion called to say they were going to run the image on their cover and offered an incredible payment of $500.
The couple had recently bought—through false pretense—a freezer’s worth of peas that were stale. They figured they would turn them into soup, but when news came of the cover, Chandoha said their spirits were lifted.
“I said ‘I don’t care how hard those peas are, throw them out, we’re in the big time now,’ ” he recalled. “We starved for three more years, but gradually it built up, we sold more covers, and worked on the first cat book.”
He slowly became the in-demand photographer (and cat adviser) for a number of cat-related advertisements. Not only because of his patience and ease with cats and his ability to get them to do a wide range of things, but also because of the look of his images. He used multiple lights in order to equally highlight the cat and the color background, with detail paid to the cat’s ears and back.
“I didn’t want a lot of props detracting from the beauty of the cats,” he said. “I wanted to completely and interestingly separate them from the background; it became a trademark for me.”
A renewed fascination in his cat work began when the New York Times Magazine became interested in some photographs Chandoha had taken of the original Penn Station in New York before it was demolished in 1963. While going through Chandoha’s collection, an editor noticed the cat photographs and proposed running a separate story about that work; it turned out to be the (pun intended) catalyst for the book.
Maria passed away in 1992, and since then Chandoha’s second-youngest child, Chiara, has been helping out with the business. She has slowly been digitizing all of Chandoha’s film and helped create the final edit for the book that was whittled down from the thousands to 55 photographs. “If I live until I’m 150 I couldn’t digitize all the film we have here,” she said.
Chandoha said he isn’t surprised by the huge presence cats have on the Internet since they are great subjects and technology has made it easier to photograph them.
“More importantly is how loveable cats are,” Chandoha said. “They make ideal companions.”