Picks and Pans Review: The Cat in Photography

updated 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Sally Eauclaire

Since the beginning of time, cats have almost always played second fiddle to dogs. Canines are presumed to be man's best friends. Lassie, Lady, Tramp, Old Yeller, Rin Tin Tin, Checkers and Millie Bush became media stars. Almost every dog, it seems, has its day.

Meanwhile, except for a brief hot streak in ancient Egypt, where they were worshiped, cats have gotten bad press. They hang out with witches. They smother sleeping babies. If a black cat crosses your path, you have bad luck forever. Garfield may be famous, but it's for being fat and cranky.

Eauclaire, a Santa Fe, N.Mex.-based photography critic, addresses this discrepancy with a collection of photographs of or including cats. She says she started her project haunted by the words of photojournalist Walker Evans: "For the record, valid photography...is not cute cats, nor touchdowns nor nudes..." Eauclaire remarks that "most curators still regard photographs of cats with the same disdain accorded to fiery sunsets."

The Cat in Photography thus aspires to do for cats what Ruth Silverman's book The Dog Observed: Photographs, 1844 to 1983 did for the canine canon. Does it succeed? Can Eauclaire overcome perennial prejudice? Is this, in short, the cats' meow?

Sorry, felinophiles. Eauclaire doesn't quite get it. She even dedicates the book to the memory of her pet dogs, which, she says, "would have liked to help chase these cats."

And clichés? There's a cat in a dunce cap (Harry Whittier Frees, 1905), a cat pushing another in a baby buggy (photographer unknown) and, of course, the mandatory basket of kittens (Harry Whittier Frees, 1905).

Cats have been more imaginatively used. A series of flying-feline pictures shows cats tossed in the air (Barbara Morgan, 1942); a four-point landing by Plaster the cat in time lapse (K.J. Germeshausen, 1948); ballet choreographer George Balanchine pitching his pet Mourka (Martha Swope, 1965); and the much-published portrait of Salvador Dalí with airborne water, chair, easel and cats (Philippe Halsman, 1948). The cats were thrown by Halsman's assistants 26 times to produce this photograph.

Jill Freedman's lovely picture of Gladys the cat curled in a chair in a circus tent while Shorty the clown does his makeup (1971) is one of the few examples of memorable photography. Other prestigious photographers are represented, including Cartier-Bresson and Kertész, but it seems as if Eauclaire raided their outtakes. Where, for instance, is Elliott Erwitt's classic photo of Mom and pet cat gazing lovingly at infant child, from The Family of Many?

If the intention of this book was to accord the cat community the respect it deserves, it misses—and by more than a whisker. (Little, Brown, $29.95)

From Our Partners