In its short life the internet has become a vast source of information, giving everyone online access to encyclopaedic, up-to-the-minute data. Even so, we all know that cats are the true stars. There are lolcats, memes, gifs, and videos, which have helped create internet celebrities such as Sam, the cat with eyebrows, Garfi, the world’s angriest cat, and Grumpy Cat, who has a spin-off book and film.
It’s a culture that much of the art world has sniffily dismissed – but not Humble Arts, the US contemporary photography foundation. It created an online exhibition called New Cats in Art Photography in 2014 and, inviting photographers to submit their images, soon found they had a runaway success on their hands. “The floodgates of submissions opened,” says Jon Feinstein, the co-founder and curator of Humble Arts Foundation.
This success encouraged Feinstein to start working on a book and, by inviting specific photographers to get involved as well as including entries from the open call, he’s made a persuasive case for cats in art photography. Humble Cats includes work by well-known photographers such as Stephen Shore, Asger Carlsen, Robin Schwartz and David Brandon Geeting alongside little-known cat enthusiasts, and series that focus in on cats as well as one-off shots.
“For me, [the book’s] more about showing the various ways cats can be an artistic muse, whether it’s a subtle inclusion in a larger body of work that has nothing to do with cats, like Rachelle Mozman’s photograph, or an entire series dedicated to cats, like Alex Crockett’s series Metal Cats, which looks at male metalheads’ relationships with cats as a means of exploring contemporary masculinity,” says Feinstein.
“When I first mentioned the open call, [people] responded either with sheer joy, or eye-rolls. I’m still getting the same responses when I talk about the book, and I want to change that,” he continues, adding that he hopes the book helps “elevate photographers who are not household names”.
Mozman’s portrait from the early 2000s featured a young girl holding a one-eyed cat in her arms – an image which instantly resonated with audiences. Feinstein believes that images such as this speak to the success of the cat phenomenon. “In the simplest terms, I think it’s just an attraction to cuteness,” he says. “Look at the website Cute-Overload from a few years back, or so many of the cat ‘celebrities’ on Instagram. It’s quick, easy to digest, infinitely shareable and transcends demographics.”
Even so, you don’t have to be into cats to enjoy the book – as Feinstein himself can attest. A photography rather than a cat-lover, he says he actively disliked cats until he was in his early 20s. “I remember making a picture book when I was in elementary school called My Hamster Otis which I recall includes the line, ‘I hate cats. If I ever get a cat and he tries to eat Otis, he will be killed’,” he laughs. “Pretty harsh for a 2nd grader!”
Humble Cats is published by Yoffy Press, RRP $45 https://hafny.org/