Walter Chandoha took perfect photos of cats for decades, beginning in 1942 and continuing until 2018, the last year of his life. The images he produced ranged from the saccharine cuteness of his famous 1955 photo of a kitten and his toothless daughter Paula smiling at the camera to blood-curdling photos of street cats in New Jersey, like those depicted his 1961 photo The Mob.
He was the original #catsofinstagram—and a new large format book about his work from Taschen celebrates his mastery of both photography and the indomitable felines themselves.
Chandoha began his career in advertising and pet-food branding packaging. But his ability to coax these furry anarchists into willing subjects soon made him the master of cat photography. According to the book, his technique for capturing cats at the precise right moment was very simple. “Early in his career, Chandoha sought the advice of a Ringling Brothers [Circus] tiger trainer,” the book describes. The trainer told him that you need three things to photograph animals: sound, patience, and food. For instance, Chandoha would use the sound of a can of cat food being opened to make a bunch of cats look in the same direction at exactly the same time to take a photo. But he often would also just rely on being quiet and patient, documenting their random moments of play and rest and capturing the true nature of his chosen subject.
Chandoha’s work documents how cat culture evolved in the United States. According to a 1985 paper by Yale professor of social ecology Stephen Keller—who pioneered the theory of “biophilia” about how humans relate to other beings, especially pets—the years after World War II marked a turning point for Americans’ perception of animals and pets. Cats and other pets started to receive care unseen until that time, becoming much more embedded into our lives. Once second-class citizens, these animals are now treated like family members, enjoy high quality nutrition diets, and are considered a crucial part in the mental well-being of their owners.
The 98-year-old photographer passed away in January 2019. You can buy the book here for $50.