group show 41
New Cats in Art Photography

* recently updated in conjunction with Yoffy Press' co-publication of Humble Cats

In 2014, Amani Olu and I sought to prove that cat photography could be more than just a meme and produced an online exhibition dedicated to pushing this idea. While a few potential titles included "I Got 99 Cat Photos and a Bitch Ain’t One,” “These Cat Photos Will Blow Your Mind and You’ll Never Guess What Happened Next…” and most unfortunately, “Henri Kittier Bresson and the Canon of the Photo Meows....”, our aim was to highlight the serious, dad-joke free, academically “legit” role that cats have played in contemporary art photography’s recent past.

The online exhibition, (now translated to print) was curated in response to some obvious questions: How did cats become one of the most viral entities known to post-Generation X’ers and Millennials? What makes feline musings simultaneously click-bait dreams and also one of the largest causes of social media animosity and Facebook “defriending?” And lastly, how can we counter the cat hysteria with images that appeal equally to populists and art historians? While this collection might not answer these questions or project any theories on the impact of cats in our rapidly shifting cultural landscape, it offers a window into how they have made their way into the work of some of today’s most compelling photographers.

Humble Cats includes more than 70 images from some of our favorite photographers around the world; images that are both culled from larger bodies of work dedicated entirely to cats, as well as one-off cat photos that have manifest in non-cat specific series. Alexandra Crockett’s photograph from her Internet famous series, Metal Cats, uses straightforward portraits of male Metalheads with their cats to address pre-conceptions of masculinity in heavy metal culture. While today’s heavy metal scene is often associated with testosterone-ridden posturing, Crocket’s portraits present a softer side.

Arne Svenson photographed stray cats standing in front of floral and pastel backgrounds, their backs facing the camera in a way he describes as “disengages the viewer,” allowing them to vanish into a mess of fur and color. Rendering them nearly faceless, the images might encourage viewers to re-consider the lives we often overlook. While Crocket and Svenson have produced substantial bodies of work about cats, many of the images in this collection, ranging from Rachelle Mozman’s Hannah, to Asger Carlsen’s twisted feline sculpture, are footnotes to their larger projects. Mozman was one of the first artists Humble featured more than a decade ago with American Exurbia, her series of children photographed in isolated, developing communities in New Jersey. While the series itself has little to do with cats, the one-eyed cat in Hannah stands as a kind of punctum to the image, and larger series, adding another layer to the series’ cold, uncomfortable hues.

Carlsen, most widely known for his surreal, black and white, digitally deconstructed images of nudes and scenes from daily life, occasionally includes cats in his work. In this instance, a cat appears as an extension of a man’s head, almost climbing out of his neck as the man squats in the middle of a non-descript street. It’s bizarre, disconcerting, and somehow delightful.

Cats have also found their way into photographs working with appropriation. For example, Jennifer Greenburg’s Revising History series in which the photographer digitally inserts herself into found imagery from the 1940’s-1960’s, has a feline cameo in the image Napping With Floyd. Greenburg describes her process as “hijacking memory,” challenging photography’s historical role in fabricating experience. While cats appear in Greenburg’s larger series only in small doses, when they do, they might parallel some of the familiar clichés she’s referencing throughout – in this case, a Siamese sitting unenthused, yet plotting on its sleeping owner.

And then there’s James Johnson’s Leap Aprés la Souris, an appropriation of Yves Klein’s classic 1960 image Leap into the Void, in which Klein hired photographers to recreate a jump from a second story window he claimed to have taken. In Johnson’s image, he replaces Klein’s likeness with a leaping cat. Johnson’s image is accessible to the meme-hungry and wink-worthy to the art historians and meta-obsessed.

Humble Cats may not answer our questions about cats’ viral consistency, but it provides a visual insight into their continued role as photographic muse. If it proves anything, it’s that images of cats can go deeper and have a longer shelf life than a quickly expiring meme. It’s an opportunity for the high and low brow to join hands and embrace the fluidity of our feline friends, and as Huffington Post arts writer Katherine Brooks initially proclaimed: “You come for the scintillating cat photos,

Jon Feinstein
Co-Founder, Humble Arts Foundation