Wednesday, 24 October 2007

How To PROPERLY Photograph A Cat

A few weeks ago, a man came round to my house to photograph my cats for the jacket of my new book. "What I want is a simple shot," he explained. "Just you on the ground, with the cats crawling all over you. Or maybe you could stand up and hold a couple and have a couple of others on your shoulders. Shouldn't take more than twenty minutes or so." I told him that this sounded fine, not because I thought any of it was remotely realistic, but because I'd realised from the moment he'd used the word "simple" that, experienced as he was, that experience clearly did not extend to cats. I knew that no warning I could give him would be any kind of substitute for the learning process provided by the real experience of trying to get six of the most duplicitious animals imaginable sitting in an aesthetically pleasing posture at the same time.

The photographer did get one very nice shot in the end, though it only featured Shipley, whom it captured looking radiantly obnoxious. The downside was that afterwards every surface in my kitchen was spotted with globules of catmeat, Delawney and The Bear had both exited the house on what had all the hallmarks of a permanent basis, and my jumper looked less like I'd been posing with Pablo and more like I'd been shearing him. One of my worries about writing a book about my cats is that there is more of this in store in the future - after which I may not have any cats living under my roof to write about.

It is not that my cats don't like being photographed, in the right circumstances. I only have to look through my collection of shots of a beaming Ralph to know that he loves the camera. Either these beatific shots all just happen to have been taken at times when he'd just broken wind in a really satisfying manner, or that glint in his eye is the glint of a creature who knows that he's being worshipped and that, as the descendant of Egyptian Gods, such worship is his right. But my cats know when they are being exploited. I'm sure even if I took a commercially-intended shot of them myself, I'd been given a "talk to the tail" gesture in no time. When I look at the best pictures that Dee and I have of our cats, each one of them, whether in resting or hunting or playful mode, seems perfectly aware that the shot is being purely taken for the purpose of glorying in their sheer existence. These pictures go a long way towards illustrating the essential dynamics of my relationship with my cats: they know that they are magnificent, I know that they are magnificent, and I am here to remind them that they are magnificent. Anything else is pretty much a deal-breaker, unless there are royalties involved and those royalties arrive in a shiny packet with "Purina One" or "Taste The Difference Honey Glazed Ham" on the front.

I'm sure that, in early 80s New York, when the photographer Tony Mendoza began to take photographs of his new flatmate's cat, Ernie, Mendoza could not have already planned the book that would come out of it. Being a cat, and therefore a master bullshit detector, Ernie would have known, and Mendoza would not have come up with such an incredible, expressive, uninhibited portfolio. There aren't many collections of photographs that I can look at hundreds of times, always discovering something new, but this is one of them. In fact, it's possible that no cat story and no anthology of cat writing, no matter how extensive or inquiring, has ever encapsulated the self-revelling nature of catness quite like Ernie: A Photographer's Memoir. Maybe it's because I've got a particular soft spot for grey and white cats, but when I look at Mendoza's shots of Ernie stalking a bird on the rooftops or curled up in a frontless desk drawer or bristling at a dog's back leg, I see everything I've ever loved about cats: their ability to be truly themselves, the eternal comedy of their touchiness, their innate sense of shame. The cat wants what the cat wants and, much as that might sometimes make living with him the equivalent to being Pete Burns' PA, witnessing that wanting can be an awesome thing. I'm sure Ernie is long gone now (why do I persist in getting so melancholy thinking about animals in old photos and films? Is this normal?*) but there seems to be no doubt that his was a life lived to the full, without inhibitions, concessions to The Man, or debilitating moments of introspection.

* Should I really have had a tear in my eye the other night, watching Preston Sturges' 1942 screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story, just because I'd realised that the spaniels in the scene on the train had probably all been dead since about 1956? Not exactly a tragedy to rank alongside Third World famine, is it?


Helen said...

I photograph my cats a lot. It is difficult to get them to look at the lens. I usually end up holding the camera with one hand and attracting their attention with the other. I hope your pictures turn out okay.


Paul said...

hmm, so you too have a fang faced cat called Ernie. Small world :)

Caroline said...

What you say is true, but I think it may not be as true of pedigree cats. They seem happier than others to pose for photos.

Have you seen the book of photos of cats by Yann-Arthus Bertrand? (the same bloke who photographed 'The Earth from the Air') He seems to have photographed a lot of cats quite successfully, but has gone a bit mad in an attempt to find 'interesting and unusual ways for an owner to pose with a cat'. Some of them seem to be entrants in the 'how many cats can I balance on my body at one time?' competition.

harpercat said...

my cat absolutely LOVES having his photograph taken and is more than happy to gaze directly into the lens, which means i have been blessed with many adorable shots of him. if he is distracted i only have to say his name and he'll look straight at me. he is also insanely jealous if i am taking a photo of my other pet (a snake); he rushes over yelling like anything and he will not relax until i have taken a pic of him too!

Vicki said...

Don't worry Tom most cats I know hate you for a while but knowing you are their only source of food where there is no effort to catch it. They will forgive you in few days if you're lucky.

Brought a copy of under the paw today and look forward to reading it over Easter.