PRINT September 1986


JEAN PAULHAN WROTE IN 1941 that at the entrance to the public garden of Tarbes, in the South of France, one could see the sign, IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER THE GARDEN CARRYING FLOWERS.1 He went on to say that in his day one also found the warning at the entrance to literature.

Signs of this sort are everywhere, and they are perhaps especially visible in our day around Modern art. A curious example hangs outside the door to fine photography: NO CATS ALLOWED. It’s been hung there with some reason, I suspect, if one thinks of those thousands of photographs of banalities speaking baby talk, where the picture is lots of fur but no personality or where the sneaky cat tries to make your heart work overtime.

The problem is that cats come to us trailing a series of prejudices (ours, not theirs). They come much more loaded with symbolism, with easy pleasure or easy hate, than, say, snails or goldfish or one-dimensional skunks. With cats, everybody has some private feeling. It’s not their fault they’re loaded dice. That’s just the cheap way they are played with in representation in general.

There are no bad cats, just bad cat photographers. Rightly, perhaps, but unfortunately, this has set good pictures of cats—carefully and intelligently observed cats, cats, shall we say, of exemplary catness—within the same taboo. I believe there are great overlooked pictures, some of which can be seen here, where cats are allowed to exercise their catness.

The best cat pictures are the ones where the photographer lets the cat do what it wants to do. Above all animals, cats should be allowed their own invention. Almost all great photographers, at one time or another, have been clinical observers of this beast. With a few exceptions, cute cats and anthropomorphized cats are essentially about anticatness. But even in this lowly genre there are brilliant operators—such as Mr. H. Pointer of Brighton, a genius of British restraint, or our contemporary equivalents, Satoru Tsuda and Toshi Wakita, with their short-circuit crazy color—who are allowed to break the rules. Luckily, a natural symbiosis seems to exist between certain photographers and certain cats, undisturbed by ill-advised personal choice.

Thinking about the choice of cat brings to mind the California architect Bernard Maybeck’s remark that he was never really an architect; he just happened to like one line better than another. In a sense, feelings about cats divide the world as do opinions on good or evil, parsnips or religion. But then, where is art (or the rest of us) without prejudice? Can one make esthetic choices without it?

Betty Parsons used to ask friends, What’s the difference between cats and dogs?

Cats aren’t afraid for their job.



1. Jean Paulhan, Les Flews de Tarbes, Paris: Editions Galhmard, 1941, p. 28.