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?

Friday 12 October 2007

The Ones That Got Away: A List Of Some Cats That I Wouldn’t Have Minded Owning But, Owing To Insurmountable Obstacles, Couldn’t

Grundy (1994-98)
Colour: Ginger and White
Home: Gedling, Nottingham
Owners: Absentee couple at rear of girlfriend’s house.
Defining Features And Characteristics: Nicotine-stained Rod Stewart meow. Take-me-home eyes.
Catchphrase: “I am a cat of constant sorrow.”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Constant low rasping noises v beguiling, but potentially grating on a day-to-day basis, not to mention cause of possible hitch in any kidnap plot.

Scampi (1988-93)
Colour: Tortoiseshell
Home: Cripsley Edge Golf Club, Nottingham
Owner: Club Steward, Cripsley Edge Golf Club
Defining Features And Characteristics: Roly-poly yet stand off-ish manner, unpredictable hiss valve, tendency to walk onto 18th green at inappropriate moments.
Catchphrase: “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Why it could never work between us: Growing antipathy toward golf (mine), growing antipathy towards being overstroked by Ladies Bridge Team leading to lasting grumpiness and “I’m not just a plaything” hissy-fits (Scampi’s).

Archie (1995)
Colour: Deep tabby
Home: York
Owner: Unknown
Defining Features And Characteristics: Waddling run, enormous belly, suspicious need to get into broom closets.
Catchphrase: “Yeah, so I’ve got a boy’s name – big deal. It never stopped Jamie Lee Curtis. What did you think I’m carrying in here – bananas?”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Curtailed stay in locality due to dropping out of University after three months. Possible offspring rehoming problems.

Hercules (1996)
Colour: Rich tea tabby
Home: Newcastle Upon-Tyne
Owners: Science Faculty Of The University Of Newcastle Upon-Tyne (unconfirmed).
Defining Features And Characteristics: Formidable bulk perfectly meshed with winning softness. Penchant for wrestling with undergraduates.
Catchphrase: “Love the one you’re with!”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Limited visiting privileges. Insecurity deriving from unacademic status. Danger of squashage. Potential “How can I know you truly love me, when you love everyone else too?” disagreements.

Nameless Strangely Silent Cat From Italian Campsite Where Wild Dogs Kept Me Awake At Night (1998)
Colour: Black
Home: Donoratico, Tuscany
Owners: Unknown
Defining Features And Characteristics: Unaccountable fondness for getting under wheel arches, laconism bordering on the disturbing.
Catchphrase: “…”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Language barrier. Geographical obstacles which could only be conquered by Mediterranean move on my part and, even then, would probably lead to constant state of worry about attack from slobbering Tuscan fanghounds.

Bagpuss (1975-79)
Colour: New rave pink and white
Home: Emily’s shop (what kind of seven year-old owns a shop?)
Owner: Emily
Defining Features And Characteristics: Can’t-be-arsed manner, all-round sagginess, propensity for hoarding junk and dreaming up improbable stories involving mermaids.
Catchphrase: “Yeoooaaawnnnn!”
Why It Could Never Work Between Us: Possessiveness of Emily could mutate into homicidal rage, upon finding favourite cloth possession gone. Limited need for old rags, bottles, shoes and assorted other old tat in my house. Transition between three dimensional reality and two-dimensional fictional universe not yet possible (A-Ha’s Take On Me video still numerous years in the future).