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January 6, 2023

Walter Chandoha: The Greatest Cat Photographer

On a winter’s evening in 1949, Walter Chandoha was walking to his three-room apartment in Astoria, Queens, when he spotted an abandoned gray kitten shivering in the snow. He put it in a pocket of his Army coat and brought it home to his wife, Maria.

Eight examples of the photography of Walter Chandoha, who said he considered cats ideal subjects because they were “just naturally expressive.”

The kitten’s antics — racing through the apartment each night as if possessed, shadowboxing with his image in a mirror — inspired the couple to name him Loco. Mr. Chandoha (pronounced shan-DOE-uh) was moved to photograph Loco and quickly sold the pictures to newspapers and magazines around the world.

Taking pictures of cats soon began to look like a more fulfilling career path than the one in advertising that Mr. Chandoha had planned while attending New York University, after serving in World War II. So, after graduating, he turned to freelance photography for a living — and, by the mid-1950s, he had begun a long period as the dominant commercial cat photographer of his era.

“Walter Chandoha’s cat models, shown on this page, must be alert, graceful and beautiful,” read a newspaper ad in 1956 for a cat food brand that featured his photos. “To keep them that way, Mr. Chandoha feeds them Puss ‘n Boots because Puss ‘n Boots is good nutrition.”

By the time he died in 2019, Mr. Chandoha had taken some 90,000 cat photos, nearly all before cats had become viral darlings of social media.

Chiara Chandoha drinks milk next to a kitten in 1961. She is one of the daughters of legendary cat photographer Walter Chandoha.

These adorable kittens took part in a Chandoha photo shoot for McCall’s Magazine in 1964.

An American shorthair squeezes into a glass in 1960.

A Siamese cat yawns in 1950.

Cats play together in 1962.

Chandoha’s daughter Paula is trailed by the family cat, Loco, in 1951.

Siamese kittens play in a basket in 1962.

This 1955 photo is one of Walter Chandoha’s most famous shots. “My daughter Paula and the kitten both ‘smiled’ for the camera at the same time. … But the cat’s not smiling, he’s meowing.”

An American shorthair in 1966.

A Siamese cat in 1984. Early in his career, Chandoha sought the advice of a tiger trainer. “To get the shot, you need three things: sound, patience and food.”

Chandoha’s backlighting technique dramatizes the defensive posture of a kitten seeing a dog in 1957.

Kittens play together in 1968.

A cat cozies up to a dog in 1968.

A Persian cat in 1961.

Barn cats wash themselves on a fence in 1982.

Onlookers at Fabulous Felines pet store, New York City, 1961.

The spirited Loco – a stray Russian blue Chandoha spotted on a snowy New York City street. His newfound pet would launch his photographic journey. Astoria, 1951.

A clowder of ominous looking felines in one of the photographer’s most famous works, titled The Mob. New Jersey, 1961.

An early photoshoot between photographer and subject, taken in Chandoha’s Long Island home studio in 1955.

Mr. Chandoha with his son Enrico and a subject in his home studio in 1961.

A cat stars in a photo shoot for a Friskies cat-food campaign in 1966.

Mr. Chandoha at work in 1977.


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