Walter Chandoha, the Photographer Who Popularized Cat Pictures Before the Internet, Has Died at 98
Chandoha's first feline subject was a gray stray in 1949.
Walter Chandoha, one of the world’s leading cat photographers, has died at the age of 98.
Long before YouTube and Instagram made cats the premier viral subject matter of choice, Chandoha captivated audiences with his intimate pet portraits. Chandoha took some 90,000 photos over the decades, starting with an abandoned gray kitten that he scooped up off the street and brought home to his wife Maria in 1949.
He named the kitten Loco and proceeded to document him racing around his Astoria, Queens, apartment and shadowboxing a mirror, according to the New York Times obituary. Chandoha sold the images to newspapers and magazines around the world and a budding career was born. Several years later, by the mid-1950s, he had become the “dominant commercial cat photographer of his era,” according to the Times.
The Hunterdon Art Museum in New Jersey just closed a major exhibition of Chandoha’s photography earlier this month. Along with his iconic cat images, “Walter Chandoha: A Lifetime of Photography” showed examples of the artist’s vibrant fruit and vegetable still-lifes, as well as images of New York City from the 1940s and ’50s.
During a career that spanned seven decades, Chandoha became best known for capturing “the personalities of thousands of cats and dogs, and he became the go-to person whenever a Madison Avenue advertising director needed the perfect eye-catching pet photo,” according to the museum.
Chandoha was born to Ukranian immigrants in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920. As a child, he began taking photographs with his family’s folding Kodak camera, and later served as a press photographer after he was drafted into the Army including working as a combat photographer in the South Pacific.
In 1949, the same year he met Loco, Chandoha married Maria Ratti, who became an integral part of his studio practice. Ratti would hold the animals in position while Chandoha, perched behind the camera, made sounds to capture their attention: “I’d bark and meow to get the animals’ attention,” Chandoha said in one interview. “Maria could tell by the muscular tension in the animals themselves whether they were relaxing and when I saw something of interest, I’d say ‘Maria, go!’ and she’d take her hands away.” Chandoha said the perfect shot could take anywhere from 10 minutes to two days.
There are numerous books of Chandoha’s cat photography and a website devoted to the photographer that presents the range of his work, including images of cats, dogs, vintage New York City street scenes, flowers, gardens, plants, and a series titled “The Four Seasons.”
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