Cat Photographers (or the desire to see through animal eyes)

January 2018

Dr Daniel Palmer is Associate Professor in the Art History and Theory Program and Associate Dean of Graduate Research in the Faculty of Art, Design & Architecture at Monash University.

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The following text by Dr. Daniel Palmer was originally commissioned for The Photographers’ Gallery as part of its 2012 Media Wall project For the LOL of Cats: Felines, Photography and the Web. Further essays in the series include The War and Peace of LOLcats by Olga Goriunova and Somebody else's cat: A study in the protohistory of the internet cat meme by Dr Loplop.

Photographs of cats are now almost as redundant as the photographers who take them. The emergence of cats as photographers in their own right would seem to underline this.[1]Of course being redundant does not prevent more cat photographers being taken. It sometimes seems as though YouTube was designed for cats, and even the instructional video ‘How To Photograph a Flying Cat’ has been watched over 100,000 times. In recent years, thanks to inexpensive, lightweight digital cameras that can be fastened to a collar and programmed to take photographs at regular intervals, a number of ‘photographer cats’ have even attained minor-celebrity status. Two of the most famous, Cooper, an American Shorthair living in Seattle, and Nancy Bean, a three-legged puss from Devon, have held successful exhibitions of their work in art galleries and attracted significant mainstream media attention.

Portrait of Nancy Bean © Christian Allen

Cooper the Cat with Family © Kevin Law

Michael and Deidre Cross, who adopted Cooper as a stray in 2005, said that they just wanted to know where their cat was all day, but soon “realized that he really takes beautiful photos.” As they note, “It turned from a more or less geography experiment into this beautiful photography project”. [2]Michael Cross interviewed on Weekend Today Show, Channel 9, Australia, Sunday 8 May 2011. Available from here. Cooper has since sold thousands of dollars of prints, and even published a book of his work.

Untitled Image by Cooper Cat

Untitled Image by Cooper Cat

Meanwhile, Christian Allen fitted Nancy Bean with a camera as part of his architecture course at the University of Plymouth. He says: “I wanted to look at suburban life but I also wanted to disassociate myself from it, so I came up with the idea to get the cat to take the pictures.” [3]‘France exhibition for Devon cat’s photographs’ BBC News, 4 May 2011. The work happened to be seen by Martin Parr, who subsequently showed it at Rencontres d’Arles in 2011. The resulting photographs are much as you might imagine – low-angled and often blurry images of gardens and the sky, the underside of cars, the cat bowl, the occasional human or animal encounter, and so on.

Photography is famously 'easy', which is perhaps why the idea of a cat photographer was foreshadowed as early as the 1870s. Harry Pointer (1822–1889), well known for his images of cats mimicking human poses, produced a postcard called The Photographer in his Bloomsbury Place studio in Brighton of a cat beside a old plate camera, apparently engaged in focusing.

Image courtesy: Sussex PhotoHistory

For Pointer this was a fanciful staging, and possibly an act of self-mockery; after all, the process of taking a photograph in the 1870s still required a modicum of human skill. Today, however, more than a century after Kodak automated the basic process, you don’t even need to 'press the button'. Hence the various ‘cat cams’ and other ‘petcams’ that can be purchased on Amazon and eBay, which advertise themselves along the following lines:

"The EYENIMAL invites you to experience a new adventure: the world from your pet’s eyes. … two and a half hours of sound and video from your pet’s perspective along with memories and full access to his or her adventures. A cat’s owner may often wonder where their pet goes for his escapades. Cats can travel some distance while at play. With this camera, the owner can now gain insight to his usual route. It is an essential device to the owner who wants to know everything about the behaviors of his animal".

Eyenimal product shot, Amazon

If amateur cameras have always been promoted as opening up new experiences and vistas, the petcam is the latest incarnation – offering an entertaining 'new adventure' and the possibility of essential 'insight'.

Indeed, the all-too human desire to attach cameras to animals comprises two elements. On the one hand, it reflects a desire to see through animal eyes, which continues an ancient philosophical fascination with animal consciousness. Since animals establish the boundaries of what it means to be human, and are capable of things that humans are not, they elicit all the anxiety and envy associated with otherness. The advertisement vainly promises “full access to his or her adventures”, but precisely because animals lack the ability to express human language, and therefore cannot tell us about their experience, this 'access' requires technological simulation. [4]From Aristotle onwards, philosophers have tended to insist that only humans have rational souls, while non-human animals are driven purely by instinct. René Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern philosophy, proposed that animals act and interact through passions only – a position that has been widely critiqued for justifying all forms of animal exploitation. Scholars associated with what has been called “the animal turn” in the humanities and social sciences challenge us to consider humans as animals amongst other animals.
See, for instance, Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong (eds.), 'Knowing Animals' (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007) and Steve Baker, 'The Postmodern Animal' (London: Reaktion, 2000).‬‬

Photographs of cats are now almost as redundant as the photographers who take them

On the other hand, the desire to turn an animal into a mobile camera coincides with a long history of their use for instrumental purposes, and specifically the practical demands of surveillance. Thus, the German apothecary Julius Neubronner pioneered the use of pigeons for aerial reconnaissance just prior to the First World War, although interest faded with rapid advances in aviation (ironically, miniature drones are now being designed in the shape of hummingbirds). Dolphins were enlisted for underwater surveillance in the Vietnam War and in the First Gulf War.

More recently, sensors have been embedded in fish and added to insects (giving new meaning to the idea of being 'bugged'). Cats, it must be admitted, have a poor track record in this field. During the Cold War, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA invested $20 million in an attempt to use cats to spy on the Russians. With a plan to release cats onto the streets of Moscow and have them eavesdrop on unsuspecting Russian agents, they inserted antennas into the tail and microphones into the skull. [5]Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the agency’s director, told The Telegraph that: “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” Marchetti said. “They made a monstrosity.” Charlotte Edwardes, "CIA recruited cat to bug Russians". The Telegraph, 04 Nov 2001. As an initial field test, they released a cat in the streets of Washington, D.C. near the Russian embassy. Unfortunately, the cat was immediately hit by a taxi and killed. Project Acoustic Kitty was declared a failure, and completely abandoned in 1967. [6]Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, 'Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda' (New York: Dutton, 2008), pp. 25– 80, 200 –203.

If cats are too unpredictable for surveillance work, this doesn’t rule out their suitability for street photography. Indeed, they share a number of traits with their human counterparts: both are famously curious and fond of wandering, yet at the same time often introverted, socially aloof, even detached. Serious twentieth-century photographers readily embraced cat-like qualities: Henri Cartier-Bresson recalled that he “prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce”, while Lee Friedlander named one of his books Like a One Eyed Cat (1989). [7]The book’s full title is 'Photographs by Lee Friedlander, 1956–1987'. The 'one-eyed cat' is probably a reference to the early rock and roll song Shake, Rattle and Roll which includes a line about “a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”. William Eggleston, better known for his “insect poetics”, also spoke of photographing from a cat’s perspective:

Sometimes I like the idea of making a picture that does not look like a human picture. Humans make pictures which tend to be about five feet above the ground looking out horizontally. I like very fast flying insects moving all over and I wonder what their view is from moment to moment. I have made a few pictures, which show that physical viewpoint. I photographed a stuffed animal in an attempt to make a picture as if the family pet were holding a camera – from a dog or cat’s view. [8]Quoted by Mark Holborn in the introduction to 'William Eggleston: Ancient and Modern' (New York: Random House, 1992), pp. 22–24.

One wonders: if human photographers are so committed to feline aesthetics (unusual angles and framing), do cat photographers make them obsolete?

Untitled Image by Cooper Cat

The problem, of course, is editing. Curator John Szarkowski was right to suggest that aside from all else, photography “is a system of visual editing”. [9]John Szarkowski in 'William Eggleston’s Guide' (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976/2003), p. 6. Unavoidably, the images captured by Cooper and Nancy Bean are only as good as the ones their owners select. Indeed, it is no accident that Cooper’s owner Michael Cross is an award winning film director and editor. Similarly, as Christian Allen says of Nancy Bean: “There were literally hundreds of pictures, with many being very mundane. But every so often you come across a cracker”. [10]‘Nancy the three-legged feline photographer snaps life through a lens’, This is Cornwall, 5 May 2011.

In Vilém Flusser’s terms, the cat is not merely a functionary of the apparatus, but of the whole human-machine-cat assemblage

An ‘authentic’ or scientific approach would have necessitated the display of every image made by the cat, or a representative sample, rather than the enlargement of only a few 'crackers'. But as always, it is hard to escape a human-centred perspective. In Vilém Flusser’s terms, the cat is not merely a functionary of the apparatus, but of the whole human-machine-cat assemblage. Perhaps this is why, even as Cooper’s owners strap a high-tech miniaturized camera on him for their own benefit, they are insistent on his 'catness' – even sentimentalizing the autonomy of his fabricated vision, and donating some of the profits to animal welfare. Ultimately, then, we might learn two things from 'cat cams': that humans are increasingly incidental to photographic production but play a potentially decisive role in a photograph’s circulation, and that human vision is only one possible way of seeing the world among others.

References

[1]

Of course being redundant does not prevent more cat photographers being taken. It sometimes seems as though YouTube was designed for cats, and even the instructional video ‘How To Photograph a Flying Cat’ has been watched over 100,000 times.

[2]

Michael Cross interviewed on Weekend Today Show, Channel 9, Australia, Sunday 8 May 2011. Available from here.

[3]

‘France exhibition for Devon cat’s photographs’ BBC News, 4 May 2011. The work happened to be seen by Martin Parr, who subsequently showed it at Rencontres d’Arles in 2011.

[4]

From Aristotle onwards, philosophers have tended to insist that only humans have rational souls, while non-human animals are driven purely by instinct. René Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern philosophy, proposed that animals act and interact through passions only – a position that has been widely critiqued for justifying all forms of animal exploitation. Scholars associated with what has been called “the animal turn” in the humanities and social sciences challenge us to consider humans as animals amongst other animals.
See, for instance, Laurence Simmons and Philip Armstrong (eds.), 'Knowing Animals' (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007) and Steve Baker, 'The Postmodern Animal' (London: Reaktion, 2000).‬‬

[5]

Victor Marchetti, a former special assistant to the agency’s director, told The Telegraph that: “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up,” Marchetti said. “They made a monstrosity.” Charlotte Edwardes, "CIA recruited cat to bug Russians". The Telegraph, 04 Nov 2001.

[6]

Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, 'Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda' (New York: Dutton, 2008), pp. 25– 80, 200 –203.

[7]

The book’s full title is 'Photographs by Lee Friedlander, 1956–1987'. The 'one-eyed cat' is probably a reference to the early rock and roll song Shake, Rattle and Roll which includes a line about “a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store”.

[8]

Quoted by Mark Holborn in the introduction to 'William Eggleston: Ancient and Modern' (New York: Random House, 1992), pp. 22–24.

[9]

John Szarkowski in 'William Eggleston’s Guide' (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1976/2003), p. 6.

[10]

‘Nancy the three-legged feline photographer snaps life through a lens’, This is Cornwall, 5 May 2011.