Classic Cats: Check out these Vintage Photos

Published in 1938 in National Geographic magazine, these images were also groundbreaking for their use of synchronised photoflash.

By Carrie Arnold
photographs by Willard Culver
Published 9 May 2018, 22:30 BST

Long before cats took over the internet — and long before there was an internet to conquer — photographer Willard Culver spent months in the sitting rooms of America’s well-to-do, capturing elaborate staged photos of some very pampered pussycats.

The series of photos appeared in the November 1938 issue of National Geographic magazine, accompanying an essay by Frederick Eddy, the former president of the Siamese Cat Society of America and the Empire Cat Club of New York. (Read surprising things you never knew about your cat.)

For Culver, the series was as much about groundbreaking photography as capturing timeless images of cats. He took his colour prints with a synchronised photoflash and the feline photo series was the first time such photos were ever published.

“Culver was called the ‘man with his magic lens,’” says National Geographic archivist Julia Andrews. “It’s an amazing glimpse into another time that shows how the magazine had an impact on how we see everyday life.”

Herding Cats

Of course, getting finicky felines to cooperate with him was no easy task, not even for the experienced Culver, who was on staff at National Geographic for 25 years. (See "What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.")

He shared his secret trick with Eddy:

“With a bit of salmon or catnip, sometimes liver, approximate friendship could be developed, though many times short-lived. A false move on my part would change the most polite and complacent pussycat instantly into a defiant and combative creature that revealed the savagery of the jungle.

“Often, scared and suspicious, our subject fled. Then, on hands and knees, I could myself trying to coax a prize-winning Persian from her dark retreat with dulcet calls of ‘Kitty, kitty—nice kitty’—my only answer a hissing growl from back under the divan.”

To adjust the lighting without provoking undue feline wrath, Culver used cardboard cat cutouts to prep the scene. Making his work even more challenging, the type of colour photography he was using (known as Dufay colour) required long exposures, which meant an untimely twitch of the whiskers could ruin a shot. (Read National Geographic’s tips for photographing people and pets.)

After months of behind-the-scenes work, his photos were ready for the magazine.

“This type of synchronised flash photography opened a lot of doors for indoor photographers,” Andrews says. “Culver was a consummate tinkerer—he was always trying new stuff with colour photography.”

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