StyleTails speaks to London-based photographer Louise Haywood-Schiefer about capturing the cunning and curiosity of feisty felines for her Cat Portraits Project, and she reveals her secret weapon for getting the perfect pussy pose.
The words ‘pet portrait’ usually conjure images of an awkward, unwilling subject shot in an Anne Geddes-esque setting, so it was rather refreshing to discover the Cat Portrait Project by photographer Louise Haywood- Schiefer. Louise, whose intriguing human subjects have included will.i.am, James McAvoy and Caitlin Moran turned her attention to the sleek and slinky feline form after being inspired by the world’s first ever cat show in Crystal Palace in 1871.
What first inspired you to start taking Cat Portraits?
One of the initial prompts for the project was actually the discovery that Crystal Palace, where I live, hosted the world’s first ever cat show in 1871. It was created by an artist called Harrison Weir to showcase everyday domestic cats as beautiful creatures and stamp out feline cruelty which was rife in Victorian times. I thought that I would follow on from this idea by photographing domestic cats in a standard traditional portrait set up, thus highlighting their individual traits and emphasising their beauty.
Have you always been a cat lover?
I have always been a massive admirer of animals since I was a child. I became a member of the RSPCA Animal Action Club at school and would pore over the magazines every month. For a while I had aspirations of being a Vet but unfortunately science was my least favourite subject so it kind of put an end to that. When I was 10 my mum bought us our first cat, a black and white kitten called Smarty – he was the best thing ever.
What do you love about photographing cats?
The thing I love most about cats is their independence. They like attention on their own terms and make you work for their approval. They have real personalities which I try to capture using my camera. I also really enjoy the shoots because people love their pets so much so it’s a really nice environment to work in, plus I find cats really funny so I do it for the amusement as much as anything. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get them to sit still for long enough but you always get characterful and amusing results.
How difficult is it to get them to pose? Do you have any tricks?
It’s quite hard to get them to do what you want so the process has to be slightly organic by just letting them play around. As long as I’m poised, I usually get the shot, but I do find that Dreamies cat treats help. I take some along with me on every shoot and I find that the cats just love them. Kind of like crack for cats, god knows what is in them but they work.
Have you discovered any unusual breeds?
One of the joys of doing this project is learning about the different breeds. The last portraits I did were of Marcel and Luna who are Devon Rex cats. I had never encountered the breed before and I think they are gorgeous – child-like and gangly, yet with slightly old man grumpy faces. It was my first attempt at photographing two cats together which was quite a challenge and took lots of bribery with treats and play toys.
Do you own a cat yourself?
Unfortunately I don’t own a cat myself. I live in a rented flat which doesn’t allow cats, otherwise I would definitely have one. Last Christmas my boyfriend bought me a flat-pack cardboard cut-out white cat which sits in our living room. Sadly it’s the closest thing I have at the moment. That’s probably another reason why I started the project, so I can hang out with other people’s cats for a short time.
You’ve photographed some really interesting people including will.i.am and Caitlin Moran. Who has been the most memorable?
It’s hard to say who has been the most memorable person to photograph, mainly because they all have their own little stories. Caitlin was great because she was so down to earth, it was just like hanging out with a friend, only one who can drink and encourages you to do the same. will.i.am was a recent shoot for which I was under quite a lot of time pressure but it was really exciting to meet him. One of my favourites has to be James McAvoy whom I shot earlier this year before he starred in Macbeth. He was so enthusiastic about the play and was up for doing anything, so it was a really fun and creative collaborative session.
What are your plans for your Cat Portrait Project?
For the time being I hope to continue finding interesting cats to photograph. In the future, I may branch out to other animals – I know someone who has fish, dogs, cats and horses so maybe I will do a whole family pet portrait series one day, but for now I am happy to focus my attention on the feline form.