It’s not hard for me to pick up any book about cats. I’m a cat lover and I have a cat that is the boss at my place. I’m her willing slave. So when Jane Bown’s beautiful little hardcover volume Cats appeared in my mailbox to review, and the cover had a tabby with a faraway look in her eyes, I knew it was for me.
Jane Bown had an affinity with cats which extend into her work. A young photography student from the aftermath of WW2 she was hired as a photojournalist with the British newspaper The Observer. Her long career as a photographer had her photographing Bertrand Russell, Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Woody Allen, Truman Capote and many hundreds more. She used a Rolleiflex camera and most of her work was in black and white. She published books of her work as a social commentator later in life. Cats is her last work and was edited and compiled by the curator of her work, Robin Christianson. Jane Bown died in 2014.
On looking through this beautiful book, we encounter seventy-five photographs of cats in total. What struck me is the total lack of artifice or the use of filters or photoshopping. These are cats. Not chocolate box cuties gussied up with ribbons and bows, but good old honest cats. Moggies in all their furry glory.
The cats are from over five decades of Jane’s travels. There are Italian cats peeking from behind curtains, ‘put out’ looking cats with tortured expressions from cat shows being transported in a variety of carriers. There are podgy farm cats reclining on sunny window sills and city cats down on their luck scavenging at Fulham train station.
There is a kind human called Miss Wyatt feeding stray cats in Fitzroy Square – something she had been doing from 1958. There are not many humans in the photographs, and if they are there, they are there as an accessory to the cats shown.
There are cats poised on gravestones, peeking from behind fences, peering through bushes or rolling in a flowerbed. Then there is the Kings Cross Station cat being fed his dinner on a luggage trolley. There are stray cats, well-fed cats and cats of every variety.
Jane Bown has successfully captured the ‘cat’ness of cats. From every angle, they exude their aloof but playful mogginess. From the upright tail disappearing into a bush, to the playful paw popping out to remind you they are hiding and it’s nearly dinner time.
Sleeping, eating, basking, meditating, thinking and playing, these seventy-five photographs are truly wonderful as the stillness creeps from off the page and helps the reader to be still and just enjoy the pictures.
The preface states ‘Once you’ve owned a cat you are hooked forever’ and of course, I have been hooked forever. This is the sort of book that any cat lover will enjoy, with short descriptions or names for each cat on each page, you are able to imagine this cat loving photographer taking time out to capture the cats she encountered. Cats in doorways, on shelves, at the beach and on the streets.
Jane was a frugal photographer, often doing a photoshoot of her human subjects in a roll and a half of film. In this day and age of digital photography, that would seem impossible. But what it means is that she has successfully captured the essence of cats. We can tell that she has an affinity with them in the way they respond to her camera.
There are more glamorous coffee table books on the subject of cats available, but there is something authentic and enduring about Cats. It would be a wonderful gift for the cat lover in your life or just a simple little pleasure to have on your own coffee table, ready to savour with a cuppa and five minutes of solitude. A lovely book and highly recommended by me.