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Walter Chandoha: Focusing on cats for 70 years

Walter Chandoha has been obsessed with cats since he rescued a kitten waiting to be fed in an alley in New York. This kitten is lively and active, running and jumping in the owner’s apartment, and punching himself in the mirror, so he was named “Loco (locomotive, madman)”, the encounter with Loco, let Chandoha go On the road to becoming a master cat photographer. During his 70-year photography career, Chandoha has captured more than 90,000 photos of cats, most of which have appeared on the pages of magazines such as National Geographic and Life. Chandoha was a commercial success: Walk through the pet food aisle of an American supermarket in the 1950s and 1960s and you’d find him taking pictures of nearly every cat product packaging.

Chandoha died in 2019. He was born on November 30, 1920, in Bayonne, New Jersey. As a teenager, he started taking pictures with the family Kodak camera, and spent hours burying his head in a cupboard — his makeshift darkroom — developing the pictures. After high school, Chandoha became an apprentice to photographer Leon de Vos. Although the salary is meager, he has learned various techniques of commercial shooting. After Pearl Harbor broke out in December 1941, Chandoha was drafted into the army and sent to the Pacific, where he became a war photographer.

After World War II, Chandoha entered New York University to study marketing. When not reading, he likes to wander the city’s sidewalks, documenting the tiny details of everyday life. One winter night in 1949, Chandoha met his muse on the street. Encouraged by his wife Maria, he sent his cat photos to newspapers and entered photo contests. Chandoha’s talent was soon discovered by some magazines, and editors began commissioning him for photo shoots. Advertising agencies on Madison Avenue also reached out to him. After the end of World War II, the number of pets owned by the United States surged, and pets, especially cats, became an indispensable embellishment of the rural countryside. Some household products also want cats to express their “family values”. So photos of Chandoha are very useful.

From the slow blink to the pink sandpaper tongue, from the wrinkled nose to the hissing warning sound, Chandoha’s shots convey the subtle qualities of cats. To get the perfect shot, Chandoha worked hard behind the scenes: He lay down on the ground at eye level with the cats, drawing their attention with food, meows and squeals. Some say cats are indifferent and unpredictable. But Chandoha knows things others don’t: If you’re patient, cats will show you their personalities; if you’re lucky, they’ll even tell you some of their secrets.

“The Locomotive”, Queens, New York, 1951

The cat named “The Locomotive” is Chandoha’s original muse, and it is believed that audiences will be as captivated by its grace as Chandoha is. Its limbs outstretched, its claws exposed, tossing in the air like an acrobat. In this photo, the beauty of felines is on full display, and Chandoha’s love for cats comes to me.

“The Gang”, NJ 1961

Most of Chandoha’s cat photos are taken in his New Jersey studio. But he also likes shooting outdoors. This group of cats hanging out on the street is one of his most famous photos. The lead cat of the “gangsters” pricked up his ears, his eyes were cold and focused, and the other cats had similar expressions. They seem to be patrolling their territory, keeping an eye out for intruders. Chandoha was lying on the ground to capture the moment when these rustic kittens acted cool.

“Paula and the Kitten,” Long Island, 1955

The photo of Chandoha’s daughter Paula with the kitten is one of his most famous pictures. The children act as models, and his wife Maria is his secret weapon. As Chandoha adjusts the camera, Maria will comfort the cats by petting and talking to them. She could sense from the tension in their muscles if they were ready, and when the kittens relaxed, Maria would tell Chandoha it was time for a close-up. Chandoha says his wife’s hands have magic.

Chandoha knew that being familiar with cat behavior was the key to taking good photos. He had sought advice from a circus trainer, who told him that “to take a picture, you need three things: sound, patience, and food.” Chandoha later discovered that tapping a can opener worked well for cats.

“Persian Cat”, New Jersey 1961

Just through the photo, the viewer can also feel how soft and smooth this little hairball is. Chandoha boosted the glossiness of the photos, and the colors were highly saturated, and photos of this style were often featured in Life magazines in the 1950s and 1960s. This little star is calm and generous, a cat-world cover girl style.

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