Caturday felid: Cooper, cat photographer

May 28, 2011 • 5:06 am

I’ve always thought that, among the arts, photography is unique in one respect: a rank amateur is capable of taking a world-class photograph, one that could be exhibited in a gallery were it taken by a famous photographer.  (I must say that I took at least one that would do credit to Henri Cartier-Bresson.)  Painting may occasionally meet this standard too—one hears of two-year-olds, or chimps, who have produced abstract paintings that could be mistaken for great art.

At any rate, this question comes up with the arrival on the art scene of Cooper, an American shorthair from Seattle.  As described in an article at ArtInfo, once a week Cooper’s owner sends him out with a digital camera affixed to his collar, programmed to snap a photo every two minutes.

And the art just pours in:

As revealed in the “Best of the CAT CAM” album on Facebook, Cooper’s photos are vernacular visions of the feline artist’s environs, captured in saturated, sunny colors — Cooper rarely ventures out in inclement weather — that have an air of William Eggleston about them. One work, titled “Risqué,” takes a saucy look up a lady’s skirt, while others present ominous close-ups of Cooper’s (human) baby brother, Cameron, who slumbers peacefully as his rival for the Cross’ affection stalks ever closer… until he hovers only a whisker away. As a stylistic flourish, the photographer cat has turned a defect in his camera into something of a signature: all of his pictures are dated July 2006.

Still other photos capture tulips, the corner of a “Star Wars” poster, tall grasses, a lily-white statue of the Madonna, and garden gnomes espied through the underbrush. A particularly dramatic series portrays other cats on the prowl, many of whom social media commenters have posited might be Cooper’s secret girlfriends. (The tail-chaser is not coy about his charms, boasting on his site that “the local lady cats rather dig a bad boy with a camera.”) But it is the love of the critics that gratifies Cooper the most, such as when the Daily Mail eruditely weighs in on one of his choicest works: “in one hilarious snap the moment he mocks a dog trapped behind the glass of someone’s front porch is taken with almost human-like humor.”

I present some of Cooper’s oeuvre.  The first one deals with the theme of mortality. Impending death, shown by the tree in fall foliage, is juxtaposed with a plant that has not yet senesced.  The telephone line provides an ironic image of human communication, which of course will cease with death.

In this one, which I call Homage à Eggleston, Cooper uses the garish colors of sunset to make an ironic comment on the artificiality of modern life, in which there is no chromatic distinction between a dwelling and a plant:

Continuing his leitmotif of death (perhaps inspired by the fabled “nine lives” of his species), Cooper gives us another mournful view.  Life, as symbolized by the sun and the telephone wires (another recurring theme in Cooper’s work), is wryly juxtaposed with the gloomy blanket of snow that supresses all life, including that below ground. Note how the precedence of nature over human striving is seen as the telephone wires “melt” in the sun:

Although Cooper rarely essays portraits, this one, of a vagrant fellow cat in Seattle, is nothing less than a rumination on human responsibility, for it makes us question whether our own species is responsible for his homelessness, or whether we ameliorate his condition by providing shelter, in the form of a car.

Finally, Cooper is not above a little self-referential humor.  Here his shadow insistently reminds us that he is, after all, a cat, and that art need not be the purr-view of humans alone.

Here’s a video of Cooper and his work (check out Cooper’s other videos on his Facebook site).

Cooper had an exhibit:  here he is at a display of his choicest works with his “owners” Michael and Deirdre Cross:

And this feline polymath has now branched out into videoCooper, of course, has a Facebook page (I’ve already “liked” it).

h/t: Grania

42 thoughts on “Caturday felid: Cooper, cat photographer

  1. I love your critical analysis of the photos; “ironic comment on the artificiality of modern life” indeed.

  2. I’ve always thought that, among the arts, photography is unique in one way: a rank amateur is capable of taking a world-class photograph, one that could be exhibited in a gallery were it taken by a famous photographer.

    That would be because the art of photography — especially in the digital age — lies not nearly so much in the operation of the equipment as in the editorial skills of the photographer.

    There are types of photography where you’re not going to succeed without the right equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. If you want to create landscape photographs akin to those Ansel Adams specialized in, you need some serious hardware; you need to know how to operate it; you need a lot of patience in setting everything up and waiting for the right environmental conditions; you need even more skill in post-processing; and you need to know before you even open up the tripod exactly what the final picture will look like.

    There are other types of photography where, yes, somebody with little or no skill may well capture something remarkable. Street photography is the obvious example. Reportage, too — as the saying goes, “f/8 and be there.” The difference between the good and bad photographers with such will be the ratio of good to bad shots. Jerry, that one shot of yours that you compare to HCB? I’m sure it’s a good shot, but HCB probably tossed out as worthless dozens of entire rolls where the worst shot on the entire roll was at least as good as yours. Then again, he shot far more rolls of film than you’ve shot single exposures.

    HCB shot that much for various reasons, not all of them neurotic. As with any human endeavor, you get better the more you do it. Practice may not make perfect, but it’s the only way to get better. But it also gave him more raw material to choose from. If you have a dozen pictures making the same basic statement, you can carefully pick and choose amongst them based on the technical merits: this one has the plane of focus on the quarterback’s faceplate; this one caught him with his eyes in shadow; this one has the ball not quite yet having left his fingers — ah! here’s the best of the bunch: the ball is an inch from his fingertips, and the sun has created a catchlight in his right eye that was caught perfectly in focus. Most amateurs would be thrilled to have taken any one of those pictures, but the SI staff photographer probably isn’t even entirely happy with the pick of the litter — did you notice those purple blobs from a pair of fans in the background that kinda look like horns growing out of his helmet?

    To bring it all back on target…the real artist here isn’t Cooper. It’s Michael and / or Deirdre who sifted through the vast amount of raw material they collected with Cooper’s help to pick out the gems. Do you have any idea of how many pictures they must have of asphalt?



    1. I’m not claiming that I’m an artist (or, by extension, that Cooper is). I’m claiming that with photography an amateur can produce something that, if hung on a wall, would be recognized as a serious work of art. Or is it only “serious” if it’s produced by a recognized artist?

      A rank amateur composer cannot produce a Beethoven string quartet, nor can a rank amateur painter produce The Night Watch. But a rank amateur photographer can produce a picture equivalent in artistic value—and in its ability to stir the emotions of the viewer—to those of Cartier Bresson or Robert Frank.

      1. I’ll agree with that.

        I’m most emphatically not a golf fan, but I think it might serve as a good analogy.

        A rank amateur is capable of hitting a hole in one — and it happens about as often as an amateur photographer creates a masterpiece. The pros don’t often hit holes-in-one, either, but they do it a lot more and a lot more frequently than the amateurs. And the worst complete 18-hole game a pro will play in a tournament will typically be better than the best game a rank amateur will ever play. And a dedicated hobbyist will have at least a couple games on record that wouldn’t be embarrassing for a professional.

        But, yes, the potential is there for isolated moments of glory for the rank amateur. Just don’t bet much more than a cup of coffee and a pastry on the amateur….



    1. Well . . .

      The pictures Dr. Coyne highlights here are not very good, although arguably, they’re interesting, presenting as they do a cat’s eye view. Not necessary to pretend that the cat is the photographer, though.

  3. How does one go about building a cat cam?

    Though I suspect that an image every two minutes won’t show much variation, given how much mine sleep.

  4. Neat!

    I’m with Ben: I think Cooper’s humans are the artists, here. But, heck, I’m game for giving Cooper the art cred. It’s way more fun that way.

  5. …one hears of two-year-olds, or chimps, who have produced abstract paintings that could be mistaken for great art.

    That’s an odd way to phrase it. You seem to be implying that the greatness of a work of art is not intrinsic to the work itself but depends on knowing who produced it.

    1. To an extent that is true. There is always a certain amount of prejudice as well as fear involved in identifying greatness.

      Enjoyment of art, whatever the medium, is largely a personal and subjective reaction. Or at least that is what it ought to be. But a lot of people have developed rather odd ways of working out whether something is good or not.

      In the same way that some people need to take wine courses in order to teach them how to tell whether wine is good enough (I mean, seriously, they couldn’t tell just by tasting it?) some people can only identify a work of art as good if someone else has told them it was first.

      Irish comedian Dylan Moran on how to tell good wine from bad:

  6. Uh-oh. The Squiddish One is trying to muscle in on Caturday with his latest post. The poor fool doesn’t realize the power of the forces he’s playing with….



  7. I’m skeptical about ALL these pictures having been taken by Cooper. I mean, I DO buy into the notion of getting an accidental ‘master work’ given enough pictures, but I’m afraid this ‘enough’ is an astronomically high number. I base this on experience with many friends and co-workers showing me literally HUNDREDS of their vacation, party, wedding and other pictures without actually having a SINGLE picture that’s even worth a cursory glance.

      1. No. There’s a difference between being skeptical and not being convinced of someone’s integrity on one hand, and flat out accusing them of lying (which I think would require proof) on the other.
        I also wasn’t entirely serious, and mainly wanted to reflect on the enormous amounts of totally uninteresting pictures that people feel a need for to share.

        I also suspect there’s another factor at work here: the realization that these pictures ARE taken by a cat (or, if you want, by ‘random means’): I think if you show people the collection of Cooper’s pictures and ask them to list the ones they consider ‘interesting’ pictures, and you divide those people into two groups: one that DOES realize they were taken by a cat, and one that doesn’t, then you probably get two rather different outcomes!

        1. “I … wanted to reflect on the enormous amounts of totally uninteresting pictures that people feel a need for to share.”
          The commentary helps. I belonged to a camera club where someone had been to India, and his commentary was like “This is a camel” until it started to include “This is just before we got to the Taj Mahal” and “This is on the way to the Taj Mahal” and “This is just outside the Taj Mahal”. Then, there was ONE picture of the Taj Mahal. Can you guess what view he had chosen?

      2. Y’all stop it.

        Cooper didn’t take these pictures. The camera he was wearing did. The owners edited.

        If the camera was taking a picture every two minutes, it’s a huge number of pictures from which to choose.

    1. The key line is this:

      [O]nce a week Cooper’s owner sends him out with a digital camera affixed to his collar, programmed to snap a photo every two minutes.

      That’s going to produce a huge random sampling of perspectives from the environment of a social secondary consumer. 99% (or more) of those pictures are going to be completely worthless shots; imagine what the pictures look like when the cat takes a two-hour nap inside a cardboard box. But a vanishing few will actually be interesting — and Michael and Deirdre have done the tedious, boring, mind-numbing work of sorting through all the shots of Cooper cleaning himself to find those few interesting ones.



      1. Okay, okay, I (kinda/sorta) buy it.

        As a matter of fact, it’s the same mode of operation of, say, professional fashion photographers: even in the days of film, it was not unusual for a photographer to use more than one camera with very fast motor drives, having TWO assistants doing nothing else than loading camera’s with film, and going through a hundred or more rolls of film during even a fairly short photo shoot. (I always wondered why they didn’t simply FILMED the damned scene).

        In that respect (and especially for cats!) ‘2 per minute’ isn’t really getting you a ‘huge random sampling’ at ALL. If the cat’s gone for an hour, you only end up with 30 pictures. That’s not much at all. I usually take more than that of my grandson (and cats!) in 1 minute (thankfully, my camera can do 8 fps 😉 ).
        Maybe they have better luck with hanging one of those small flip video cams off his collar, and then make stills from interesting scenes.

        1. (I’m SO looking forward to the day I can edit my comments and fix my errors: “didn’t filmed”: one of the more common errors made by non-native-English speakers, EVEN when they KNOW better -like me- *sigh*)

        2. Come on. Your skeptical instincts are good. Stay with them.

          Dr. Coyne is playing with us.

          Try to resist. . . the power . . . . of the . . . . boots.

          1. About my skepticism .. I looked at the pictures on that Facebook page, but hadn’t looked at the article that Jerry linked to.

            I just did.

            My skepticism grew again when I read that there’s money involved! Selling $20 books about it, and selling the photographs for up to $265?

        3. The machine-gun fashion photographers are performance artists as much as they’re photographers. If all that mattered were the prints, they wouldn’t be nearly so conspicuously consumerist. Arguably, though, the machine-gun approach (along with the arrogance and the rest) helps create the atmosphere of self-important hype that pretty much defines the industry.

          A sports photographer with the luxury of good (outdoor) light will do short machine-gun bursts of the action, since human reflexes aren’t good enough to precisely capture the decisive moment. The difference between a useless shot and the magazine cover may well be the tenth of a second it takes for the ball to travel far enough to stop obscuring the defender’s face…which is why the SI crew will pass on your 8 FPS slowpoke for the 10-11 FPS rates of the top-of-the-line models.

          At the other end of the spectrum, in still life photography, you might only make a single exposure — or one single series of exposures if you’re doing HDR or focus stacking or the like.

          As to why not video? Lots of reasons. Sheer image quality is at the top of the list. The 35 mm motion picture format is half the size of the 35 mm still format, about the same size as APS-C. Lots of fashion photographers sneer at anything less than 645 medium format, especially now that that’s gone digital as well.

          (All else being equal, APS gets you an 18″ × 24″ print, 35 mm gets you a 24&Prime × 36″ print, 645 gets you a 36″ × 54″ print, and large format gets you a wall-sized mural. You can certainly make a great wall-sized mural from APS, but it’ll be extremely fuzzy when you stand close. The same mural done from an 8″ × 10″ negative from a view camera will be as detailed at arm’s length as the 18″ × 24″ print from the APS format at arm’s length.)

          Then there’s also all kinds of lighting and exposure considerations. Motion picture is extremely limited in terms of available shutter speeds — if you’re shooting at 30 FPS, you can’t use a shutter speed of 1/25 second! You need a continuous light source which is big and unwieldily and gets very hot and sucks all kinds of power, compared to flashes that are much brighter, smaller, easier to modify, and a hell of a lot safer and easier to work with.

          And still cameras themselves are a lot smaller, lighter, and easier to manipulate. Try whipping around an IMAX camera from waist height to over your head and back again!

          The two are definitely coming together, though. In addition to being a full-frame 35 mm 21 Mpixel still camera, the Canon 5DII is a large format HD (2 Mpixel) movie camera, about midway between traditional movie cameras and IMAX in terms of imaging area. The RED camera does full-motion RAW capture of (film) 35mm-sized 9 Mpixel video; single frames from it are comparable to anything a typical DSLR creates. I’m sure I’ll live to see the day when a mere mortal can afford to buy a full-resolution high-speed large format camera.



          1. Hi Ben,

            I like your comments.

            I have a friend whose watch-phrase is: No compromise.

            Trouble is: Everything in photography is a compromise, almost by definition. You are always trading off shutter speed versus aperture, handiness (speed, probability of capture) vs. the big gear (quality of image), ISO versus IQ, cost vs. IQ, etc.

            And the history of photography has clearly been one of: Improvement in lens technology leading to smaller emulsion/sensor size, leading to more opportunities where high-quality images can be captured.

            I am truly blown away by how good my new “digital” (designed for new, DSLR) lenses are in direct comparison with my trusty old 35mm lenses (which I consider to be very sharp, excellent IQ lenses) and even my 6cm X 6cm with Schneider optics. Good in every dimenion of lens quality/IQ, but especially: sharpness(!!), contrast(!!), color rendition(!!), corner-corner performance, bokeh, maximum aperture IQ, actual maximum aperture, vignetting (lack thereof), AF accuracy and speed, etc.

            The discussion with this friend revolved around “full-frame” (approx. 35mm-film-sized) sensor versus APS-C sensor for DSLR.

            He was “no compromise”: full-frame.

            I am strongly: APS-C. At 16+MP, with the CCD technology now, this blows away anything I’ve seen in film less than 4X5. And: It saves so much money, bulk, and weight at the telephoto end of the lens range, where those really add up. I’m amazed at the arsenal I can put into one bag with the APS-C cameras. Love ’em.

            Now, if I could just keep my effing sensors clean! ;^)

            Many of what are considered to be the greatest photos are not technically perfect. Many of my favorites (Ansel Adams aside) are not perfectly sharp. That’s OK, if the image can carry it.

            On the size thing: I have 13X19 prints from an older 6MP DSLR which people are blown away by. They look fantastic (even up close). I would have no issue going to twice that size with my newer sensors. Sure, if you got your nose up on the print, it won’t show perfect sharpness — but who cares? That’s not the appropriate viewing distance for the image anyway.

            As you note, if your business is making wakk-sized prints, then choose your weapon appropriately. But for 99.9999% of great photos, this just isn’t an issue.

            I highly recommend: The Great LIFE Photographers

            It has a rather small format; but that doesn’t detract much. A great sweep of 20th century photos.

  8. Hm. I’m not sure that “vagrant fellow cat” is homeless. But I’d agree that he is a victim of human callousness: looks to me like the poor fellow is sporting a lion cut. Perhaps Cooper is ruminating on the artificiality of human aesthetics?

    1. You’re right, I was trying to figure out why the poor animal had such a boofy head, I was hoping it wasn’t toothache! He’s not at all homeless though certainly abused, all the other cats will be laughing at him, that’s why he’d hiding under the car, but Cooper found him and photographed his humiliation. Oh the poignancy!

  9. I don’t get it – but then I often feel that I’m experiencing a sort of “emperor’s new clothes” when confronted with various art mediums. Unlike the elephants, toddler, or chimps the cat had zero idea he was participating and hence makes it rather pointless and obviously random to me.

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