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January 26, 2019

Walter Chandoha, The Pioneer of Cat Photography (1920 – 2019)

Two weeks ago, at the age of 98, famed cat photographer Walter Chandoha passed away in his home, surrounded by his five children and his cat, Maddie. Rarely have I had the opportunity to work with someone like Walter; despite only knowing him for a very brief time, he was one of the most pivotal people in my own cat-centric career.

Photo above: Walter Chandoha in his element. (Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

I first met him back in 2015 when I had the pleasure of interviewing him for artnet News; he had just released his 33rd book, The Cat Photographer – an apt title for a tribute to his 70 year career chronicling the beauty of our feline friends. Then 94, he was a firecracker of a conversationalist, telling anecdotal stories of cats he’d known over the years. From the onset, I admired him greatly – here was a man who made an entire career based on cats; he was my hero!

 

The famous Loco. (Image courtesy the Chandoha family)

 

I connected with Walter again late in 2018, when I was hired by TASCHEN Publishing to work with him on his 34th book about – you guessed it – cats. He lived on a 42 acre farm in New Jersey with his cat Maddie. Even his car showcased his pride in being a cat man – his license plate said simply ‘Catmobile.’ While one of his five children was always around to help out, Walter – now 98 – continued to work daily on his photographic endeavors (he worked right up until two days before he passed away).

 

The lensman’s career began back in 1948, when he met a lonely kitten on a cold winter’s night in Manhattan. Aptly named Loco, the kitten would run around the newly married man’s three room apartment at all hours of the night. Wanting to chronicle Loco’s catrobatics, the shutterbug started clicking, and submitted his imagery to local newspapers and contests. This got him his first freelance assignment and from then on, there was no turning back.

 

Pictured: Walter Chandoha, Susan Michals, Alejandro Veciana (Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

He worked side by side with his wife, Maria, and frequently involved their children. His work ran the gamut – family shots, street scenes, advertising pictorials. Collectively Walter created over 90,000 cat images that dotted magazine covers, advertisements, and virtually every pet food package in the Mad Men-era of Madison Avenue.

 

Walter with an archival display of some of the many products he shot. (Image courtesy Susan Michals)

 

We talked about cats, family, and drive. We went through many of his famous images, and some that were just plain sentimental. A full head of white hair, and a face filled with happy cracks and crevices from years of laughter and love, Walter was an erudite gentleman, and the ultimate expert in everything from cat flexibility to capturing every hair on their head to perfection. As we reminisced over those many photographs, he became filled with such glee; it felt almost as if he was seeing some of them for the very first time.

 

In talking about our kitty friends’ popularity on the internet, Walter wasn’t surprised; it just made him happier. More photographs of kitties to be had, he mused. If you think about it, there’s quite a similarity between the success of celebricats like Nala, BUB, and the many others that dot our Instagram feeds and Walter’s career. Their good fortune was happenstance and luck. It was never intentional; they simply found wonderful human beings who loved them, unconditionally and unequivocally. Walter’s career was very much the same – he discovered that tiny, shivering kitty one evening, all alone, took him home, and loved him. And that kitty was the one who started it all – a lifetime of doing the one thing that drove him – capturing the essence of our furry beloveds in an instant, that would last in our hearts and minds forever.

 

We will miss you, dear Walter.

Susan Michals
Creator and President of CatCon

 

One of Chandoha’s first magazine covers. (Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

Walter even got this subject to promote his book “How to Photograph Your Cat” (Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

(Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

(Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

 

(Image courtesy of the Chandoha family)

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