Walter Chandoha, the Richard Avedon of Cat Photography

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Walter Chandoha Cats Taschen Photography Book 2019 high res
Sound was pivotal to Chandoha’s success: the click of a can opener could perfectly align his often-unruly models. New Jersey, 1961© 2019 Walter Chandoha

Over the course of his decades-long career, the late photographer Walter Chandoha created over 90,000 images of cats. Here, a look inside a new book compiling some of his greatest feline shots

The year is 1955. Photographer Walter Chandoha stands opposite a cat, a toy in one hand and a camera in the other. Around him are three spotlights perfectly aligned to light up his feline subject as he presses the shutter. This intimate moment between artist and animal is just one of many from Chandoha’s long-spanning career which feature in Taschen’s latest photography book, Cats: Photographs 1942–2018. With his imaginative approach to animal photography, and an endless archive of work, Chandoha can best be described as – to use Taschen’s words – the Richard Avedon of cat photography.

Chandoha was born in New Jersey in November 1920, and his interest in photography began when he came across his family’s Kodak camera as a child. His adolescent years were mostly spent studying the medium and experimenting with various techniques: “I read every photography book I could get my hands on at the local library and tinkered with my family’s folding camera, practicing what I had learned,” Chandoha writes in Cats. When the Second World War broke out, Chandoha served as a press photographer and later a combat photographer in the Pacific.

“In 1946 I returned home and enrolled in New York University under the G.I. Bill, majoring in marketing,” Chandoha writes. “But I used every free moment I had to photograph daily life in New York City – from Penn Station before it was demolished in 1963 to laundry day in Harlem.” It was on his way home from university one night that Chandoha came across Loco, a stray cat who was to become the photographer’s lifelong companion and muse. “We were truly thrilled with the success of those first pictures of Loco and began to seek out other cats to photograph.” Over the course of his career, Chandoha produced over 225,000 photographs, 90,000 of which depicted cats. The artist recalls the prominence of his work in the 1950s and 1960s: “If you went into a supermarket when I was doing all these packages, there would be dog food on one side and cat on the other. Almost all of the photographs were mine!” 

Chandoha’s photographs are perceptive, honest and immensely varied. Yet his dedication to capturing subjects close to his heart remained immovable throughout his decades-long career (he was still taking photographs well into his nineties, and passed away at the age of 98 earlier this year). In her essay The Animal Instinct of Walter Chandoha, which features in Cats, Susan Michals references artists who influenced Chandoha. Tsuguharu Foujita, she says, worked with diverse subject matters, but incorporated cats in just about everything he created. In a similar vein, Johannes Vermeer inspired Chandoha’s precise and playful use of lighting. Michals even quotes Chandoha recognising his diverse pool of references; “the way [Vermeer] presented his subjects with light and shadows is something I use in all my pictures,” he said.

Beyond his carefully crafted archive of influential animal photographs, Chandoha also could be deemed the creator of the cat meme – popularised decades later by LOLcats – after seeing playful captions added to his photographs. “In 1950, I got a request from Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson,” Michals quotes Chandoha. “They wanted to do a little booklet for the personnel in operating rooms [and] wanted the pictures to coincide with the funny captions.” 

Chandoha’s legacy is, in other words, a complex and persistent one. Not only did the photographer invite the world to reconsider the value of cats in both high and low brow art, but he also played a pivotal, albeit unexpected, role in the establishment of – what we today might call – meme culture.

Walter Chandoha: Cats, Photographs 1942–2018 is published by Taschen on August 19, 2019.