© 2019 Walter Chandoha

Books

Hello, kitties: new book celebrates the work of Walter Chandoha, cat photographer

Taschen publication charts the long and influential career of the late artist who inspired Warhol

The internet has proved that there is no limit to the human desire for cat content. Yet, long before the development of our collective obsession with contemporary feline celebrities like Lil Bub or Grumpy Cat (RIP), Walter Chandoha was fastidiously photographing cats for the masses, his images appearing on greetings cards, magazine pages and pet-food packaging across the US for more than half a century.

A small sampling of Chandoha’s many models taken as part of a shoot for McCall’s Magazine. New Jersey, 1964.
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

The artist began experimenting with photography while he was in high school in Bayonne, New Jersey, and went on to serve as a combat photographer for the US Army during the Second World War. But it was a fateful encounter with a small, grey stray on the snowy streets of New York one winter night in 1949 that led him to a lifelong career that evolved cat photography into an art form, one to which Taschen pays homage in their latest release, Walter Chandoha. Cats. Photographs 1942–2018, which features 300 of his most celebrated images.

Chandoha hit the jackpot, however, when he pivoted to advertising with his kitty-filled portfolio. In post-war America, the advertising industry was booming; the artist, who had recently graduated from New York University with a G.I. Bill-sponsored degree in marketing, had a hunch that cats could charm consumers. “Family was paramount, a powerful commodity, and animals were part and parcel of living the American dream,” Los Angeles's CatCon founder Susan Michals writes in her essay included in Taschen’s Cats. “Ad men recognized the potential of integrating animals into their campaigns, and Madison Avenue came calling.”
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

“I relished the challenge of making photographs of cats and quickly saw the potential of attempting to capture their naturally expressive personalities,” Chandoha writes in his forward to the book, penned just before he died earlier this year at the age of 98. Having taken the shivering stray home, he and his wife, Maria, named the cat Loco for its crazy night-time antics, which Chandoha started shooting and submitting to photography contests; these artful, dynamic images of his moggie muse often won the photographer a few small sums in winnings. It was not long before he was snapping pics of other street toms, shelter foundlings and pedigreed show cats.

“I relished the challenge of making photographs of cats and quickly saw the potential of attempting to capture their naturally expressive personalities,” Chandoha writes in his forward to the book, penned just before he died earlier this year at the age of 98. Having taken the shivering stray home, he and his wife, Maria, named the cat Loco for its crazy nighttime antics, which Chandoah started shooting and submitting to photography contest; these artful, dynamic images of his moggie muse often won the photographer a few small sums in winnings. It was not long before he was snapping pics of other street toms, shelter foundlings and pedigreed show cats.
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

Chandoha hit the jackpot, however, when he pivoted to advertising with his kitty-filled portfolio. In post-war America, the advertising industry was booming; the artist, who had recently graduated from New York University with a G.I. Bill-sponsored degree in marketing, had a hunch that cats could charm consumers. “Family was paramount, a powerful commodity, and animals were part and parcel of living the American dream,” Los Angeles's CatCon founder Susan Michals writes in her essay included in Taschen’s Cats. “Ad men recognised the potential of integrating animals into their campaigns, and Madison Avenue came calling.”

With the help of his wife, who often managed the notoriously naughty feline talent with treats and toys, Chandoha went on to take more than 200,000 images, single handedly building the first cat art canon. “Walter was equally adept in color and black and white. He could formally shoot cats in the studio, he could photograph stray cats roaming the streets of 1950s New York, he could shoot them in action like a sports photographer and he could take beautiful portraits of cats with his children in their farm in New Jersey,” says Reuel Golden, Taschen’s photography editor who worked with Chandohan to realise Cats. “He had an amazing eye.”
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

With the help of his wife, who often managed the notoriously naughty feline talent with treats and toys, Chandoha went on to take more than 200,000 images, single-handedly building the first cat art canon. “Walter was equally adept in colour and black and white. He could formally shoot cats in the studio, he could photograph stray cats roaming the streets of 1950s New York, he could shoot them in action like a sports photographer and he could take beautiful portraits of cats with his children in their farm in New Jersey,” says Reuel Golden, Taschen’s photography editor who worked with Chandoha to realise Cats. “He had an amazing eye.”

While he specialised in commercial photography, Chandohan’s artist historical influences were many, including Japanese-French painter and printmaker Tsuguhuara Foujita, whose compositions often included cats, and Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer for his use of light. Indeed, Chandoha’s studio practice involved six different lights to adequately capture the nuance of the feline form and manner. But he himself influenced artists, too. “When Andy Warhol needed inspiration for his illustrated book from the 1950s, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, he turned to Walter’s cat photography book,” Golden says.
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

While he specialised in commercial photography, Chandoha’s artist-historical influences were many, including the Japanese-French painter and printmaker Tsuguharu Foujita, whose compositions often included cats, and the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer for his use of light. Indeed, Chandoha’s studio practice involved six different lights to adequately capture the nuance of the feline form and manner. But he himself influenced artists, too. “When Andy Warhol needed inspiration for his illustrated book from the 1950s, 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy, he turned to Walter’s cat photography book,” Golden says.

His technical expertise was unparalleled and his reach, unprecedented: “Walking the supermarket pet-food aisle in the 1960s was like attending a Chandoha gallery opening,” a 2017 Financial Times article on the life of the photographer reports. Of course, when LOLcat memes first started circulating on the web, many found their origin in Chandoha’s stock photography archive.
© 2019 Walter Chandoha

His technical expertise was unparalleled and his reach unprecedented: “Walking the supermarket pet-food aisle in the 1960s was like attending a Chandoha gallery opening,” a 2017 Financial Times article on the life of the photographer reports. Of course, when LOLcat memes first started circulating on the web, many found their origin in Chandoha’s stock photography archive.

While Cats is not the first book devoted to the photographer’s lifetime love affair with felines—he himself published more than 30 books in his lifetime—Taschen’s tome represents a retrospective dedicated to a versatile photographer whose subject happened to be cats. “With this book we didn’t want to do anything kitsch, but rather produce a classic photography book—something as far away as possible from Instagram cats,” Golden says, adding that the book has at least one explicit purr-pose: “We want people to get the same joy from these photos as they do from their own cats.”
© Taschen

While Cats is not the first book devoted to the photographer’s lifetime love affair with felines—he published more than 30 books over his career—Taschen’s tome represents a retrospective dedicated to a versatile photographer whose subject happened to be cats. “With this book we didn’t want to do anything kitsch, but rather produce a classic photography book—something as far away as possible from Instagram cats,” Golden says, adding that the book has at least one explicit purr-pose: “We want people to get the same joy from these photos as they do from their own cats.”