Long before cats of Instagram, or even Lolcats (if you can imagine a time before that) there was Walter Chandoha. A prolific photographer from New Jersey who dedicated his career to photographing felines, Walter’s influence is indisputable. “Fashion has Helmut Newton, architecture has Julius Shulman, and cat photography has Walter Chandoha,” writes Taschen on the release of its recent book dedicated to the career of the remarkable photographer.
Walter Chandoha. Cats. Photographs 1942-2018 was edited by Reuel Golden, Susan Michals and, to start with, Walter himself. But partway through the project, Walter passed away at the age of 97 in January of this year. “When he passed away during the production of the book – and it’s so sad that he didn’t get to see it in print – we were all very conscious that this book was now going to be this testament to his life’s work,” Reuel tells It’s Nice That.
The project first began when Benedikt Taschen suggested it would be a good time to do a book on cats, especially after the success of the publisher’s book on dogs. “Walter really was and is the greatest cat photographer of the 20th Century, so he was a natural choice for a monograph,” Reuel adds. “The book is a celebration of a very talented and 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.”
On the experience of making the book, Reuel recounts: “On a personal level, Walter was a fascinating man. When I first met him, he casually mentioned at some point that he had been a combat photographer in the Pacific during WW2. That’s quite a revelation. He was interesting and interested, as are his daughters who worked with us on the book – Fernanda and Chiara," the editor explains. "[Walter] had a huge archive and I spent several days going through the pictures – contact sheets, prints, transparencies – the research is often the most interesting part of the project. I would work downstairs at his farm going through the archive and Walter would be upstairs in his room reading. A couple of times a day, he would come in and see how the edit was going, but always in a very relaxed and encouraging way. I think of those moments with Walter when I now see the book.”
Each photograph in Walter Chandoha. Cats. Photographs 1942–2018 is remarkable; a demonstration of what made Walter’s work so iconic. In his images, cats take on multiple characters, flying through the air, slinking around in packs, laughing with young girls, or yawning. And these images have had a profound effect both on the commercial and artistic worlds of photography.
“He was the go-to animal photographer in the Mad Men Era for all the big print advertising campaigns. He’s also the author of several classic books on how to photograph animals," Reuel continues. "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.”
It’s this duplicity – the fact that existed in both of these spaces at once – which makes Walter’s work so impactful still today; his legacy can be seen throughout the world of creativity. In conclusion, Reuel adds: “Walter was equally adept in colour, 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. He had an amazing eye, but to be really great, your pictures need to have a soul and Walter’s certainly did."
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