Walter Chandoha passed away January 11, 2019 at the age of 98. His career spanned 75 years and his photos were published in the most popular magazines and newspapers in the country as well as used by the advertising agencies of Madison Avenue. His photos of his first rescued cat began winning contests, his work was noticed, and he became the expert cat, dog and animal photographer, then moved on to gardening and photographing gardens and flowers, publishing 33 books before his death, with book number 34 to be published in April. A widower of his beloved Maria, he is survived by his children and grandchildren and his cat Maddie.
One of my idols without knowing, I realized I’d seen Walter Chandoha’s photos of cats everywhere, as well as of other animals. He was so popular in the 1950s and 1960s that likely his photo alone helped sell the cat food and any other product where one of his images was used in an advertisement. He also photographed dogs and other domestic and wild animals and gardens as well as New York City street scenes, shot when he was an apprentice and later a student in New York City.
Nearing 100 years old he was still chasing cats around his New Jersey farm, and still photographing them too.
Born in 1920, Chandoha taught himself quite a bit about photography reading books at the library and just after high school was recommended to apprentice with Leon de Vos, a New York City commercial photographer, then in order to make a living worked with a commercial portrait chain. Through WWII he was a press photographer, then attended the NYU School of Commerce for a degree in marketing on the GI Bill. And his next move in the early 1950s led him to a change in his projected career path. One winter evening he found a grey kitten in the snow, put the kitten in the pocket of his army mackinaw and gave the kitten as a gift to his wife, Maria.
“While in college I augmented my GI Bill subsistence allowance by shooting weddings and entering photo contests and sometimes winning cash prizes. And during one winter I found a homeless cat in the snow, gave her a home and sometimes used her (and later her kittens) as a model. Most of the winning pictures I entered in contests were of cats and kittens. In addition to entering contests with my cat pictures I made feature picture stories involving cats and sometimes sold them to New York newspapers. These efforts were so successful that once in a while I got requests for cat pictures from magazines and ad agencies. More of my stuff was published, and I was getting a minor reputation as a cat photographer. Then I made my big decision—I quit the job I didn’t enjoy, drove home and started freelancing as a specialist in cat photography. We starved for two years, were happy and although I did not realize it at the time, we were building a stock picture file that is still yielding today, some 50 years later.” (From “Walter Chandoha: City Streets” interviews on Photographers Speak, April 2011)
That rescued cat was named Loco, who you can see in this article on Artnet. In time, he became “THE ‘go to’ expert cat, dog and animal photographer for the top Madison Avenue advertising Agencies.”
I have a copy of his book Walter Chandoha’s Book of Kittens and Cats (Bramhall House, 1963) full of stunning black and white images of just that, and comments and information on himself. He and his family had moved to the 46-acre farm in northwest New Jersey in still rural Hunterdon County where he still lives. Many cats as well as other animals and a love of gardens supplied Chandoha with subject matter for many of the 200,000 photos counted in his career. That was in the days before spay and neuter was a viable option for small animals like cats, so mothers with kittens were a common sight. His introduction to the 1963 book has so much to say about his career in photography and photographing cats, and about the love he and his wife Bebe had for cats through the years, and tales of their home with cats, their children growing up with cats in the bassinet, the many litters of kittens. The book is organized as “a pictorial biography of the cat”, from day one to the last day.
He also discusses society’s views of the cats, most often positive but sometimes negative, and one anecdote:
“Cats made the news in a big way in 1949 when the then Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois vetoed a bill that attempted to restrict the freedom of cats. The bill was sponsored by an organization which felt that cats were largely responsible for the destruction of birds.”
Nearly seventy years ago they were talking this story, and even then Chandoha quotes a list of “enemies of birds” published by the Audubon Society where cats are number 8—humans are number 4.
But, oh, the photos! Most of them his own cats and their kittens, and his children running , playing, wrestling, snoozing, and lots of mama kitties with lots of kittens. It’s well worth it to find a copy of this book either in the library or at a yard sale as I did and just enjoy the photos. Don’t forget to visit Chandoha’s website to read more about him and see even more photos and read the post “Lessons from a Master Cat Photographer” in Times Videos. You can also find posts sharing vintage and newer photos on his Facebook page.
The Puss ‘n Boots ads
I love to study old advertising and graphic design—the fonts, the layout, the images, the offers. Advertising is a little snapshot of who we were in that moment in time. When you put some cats in it, especially prize-winning photos by renowned animal photographer Walter Chandoha, I’m totally occupied.
What a find these two ads were when I was set up at Carnegie Antiques for an event! Judi’s shop is always good for cat things partly because cats have always been popular in little figurines and because Judi is a cat person who tends to find them.
Displayed on the open door of a wall cabinet I saw, first, pictures of cats, then noted they were two vintage magazine ads for Puss ‘n Boots cat food. They had come to her with a purchase of varied materials from an estate. Neither of them have any identification as far as which magazine they were cut from or even a date but they were well kept, only slightly yellowed.
I researched them and found the one at the top, which ran in 1959 in all the major magazines of the day, but no information on the second though it was probably of the same era plus or minus a year or two. Ads earlier than 1959 typically had illustrations rather than photographs and were more often in black and white.
I found it interesting that there would be a full-color, full-page magazine ad for cat food in 1959. I actually remember feeding my cat Bootsie Puss ‘n Boots canned cat food from the big 15 oz. cans in the late 1960s but of course, in those days, if I read cat food labels it was not with any particular awareness.
Let’s look at the claims the ads made, very interesting in light of our discussions of pet food today.
“Puss ‘n Boots is made not just of fish by-products, but whole fish—nature’s storehose of proteins, vitamins and minerals. The fish liver is included for abundant Vitamin D. Nourishing cereals are added—plus extra Vitamins B1 and E.”
“Costly fillets” using the whole fish, organs, glands, bones and flesh, a nice touch, but also “select cereals” for regularity. It’s interesting to see how canned cat food developed, why fish was such a popular ingredient, and when and why grains were added.
And of course, special offers, the key to the success of an advertisement and to marketing your brand in general. Both ads have an offer to receive a print of Walter Chandoha’s photo by sending “25 cents in coin”.
And those tiles—they are really pretty, and only $1.50 plus three can labels from Puss ‘n Boots! I’d love to have a set! And I’ll admit, they were an inspiration…
I did not buy the ads—I have no need for more cat things, and I’ve seen them in other places as well, and also found them on the internet.
You can read more about Walter Chandoha in his obituary.
Gifts Featuring Cats You Know!
Feline Photography inspired by rescued cats from Portraits of Animals!
I’m no Walter Chandoha, but my felines inspired me too. You can see my photos on The Creative Cat every day, and a gallery of the most popular on Portraits of Animals. Prints are available from all of them, even greeting cards and note cards too. Visit my gallery of feline photography to see what’s available.
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission, although links to your site are more than welcome and are shared. Please ask if you are interested in using and image or story in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of an image or a product including it, check my animal and nature website Portraits of Animals to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.
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And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!