The Original Viral Cat Photographer
Cats are famously impossible to corral. Those furry little narcissists have their own agenda and care little about your wants and needs. And perhaps no one is more intimately familiar with their stubborn independence than cat photographer Walter Chandoha.
"Cats are their own people and they'll do what they darn well please," says Chandoha in his new book, Walter Chandoha: The Cat Photographer (Aperture, 2015).
Chandoha, 95, has spent the majority of his life behind the lens, and it was early in his career when he discovered he had a knack for capturing animals. Although the New Jersey native has photographed dogs, fowls, and horses, cats have always been the fan favorite. That, Chandoha says, is because cats are nature's divas.
"Cats are just naturally expressive and they get into such a variety of situations," he says.
For 40 years, Chandoha's cat photos — with their signature backlighting — have appeared in advertisements (for pet food, shoes, and even women's lingerie), magazines (from National Geographic to LIFE), and more than 30 books.
But it takes an expert hand, not to mention limitless patience, to get the perfect shot. Chandoha attributes his success to his wife, Maria, who has long acted as the animal handler and charmer. "It's not a one-person job," he says. Nor is it a quick one.
For his photos, Chandoha used a small upstairs bedroom in his family's suburban New Jersey home as his studio. There, Chandoha would situate himself on his knees, his camera at the ready, while the cats were placed on a table or a box. Then, Maria would get to work — holding and cajoling the cats; entertaining them with toys; petting them — until they relaxed in spite of the glaring lights.
With his window of opportunity revealed, Chandoha would give his wife the okay to pull her hands away, then photograph madly while the cats were in pose. He'd run through a zoo of animal noises and tap the hood of his camera to try to capture the Holy Grail of cat portraiture — eye contact.
"If one cat would be looking out this way and another looking somewhere completely different, that's no good," he says. "The eye contact has to be just right."
The best shots may come by chance, but Chandoha's work manages to herd the impossible, adorably capturing cats in photographs that transcend time and trends.