If you were a tortoise, what would you see?
As programmable digital cameras get smaller and cheaper, the universe of pet photography has exploded as scientists use the technology to learn more about the habits of all manner of animals, including house cats.
The New York Times
NEWPORT, R.I. — It was in 2007 that Juergen Perthold, an engineer living in Anderson, S.C., strapped a tiny camera of his own design to the collar of his cat, Mr. Lee. When the images Mr. Lee captured while roaming around their neighborhood were posted online, they went, predictably, viral. Mr. Lee received a flurry of attention from the international media and became the star of a documentary, “CatCam: The Movie,” which made the film festival rounds in 2012 and even won a few awards.
Perthold has since refined his tiny camera, which was designed to record video or still photographs at programmable intervals, and has sold nearly 5,000 to pet owners in 35 countries, many of whom send their images back to Perthold, who displays them on his website. For Mr. Lee is not the only pet photographer, and his CatCam is not the only pet-oriented photographic device.
Last week, GoPro, a camera company made famous by surfers and other athletes who clip on its waterproof miniature Heros to record their adventures, introduced its own version: Fetch, a harness and camera mount designed for dogs. For years, pet owners had been rigging Heros to attach to their pets; perhaps you’ve seen the YouTube video of that surfing pig? (GoPro, a 10-year-old company that enjoyed a stunning IPO in June, couldn’t say how many Heros have been used “off-label” in this way, but it did share its 2013 revenue: $985 million, up from $150,000 a decade ago. And GoPro’s spokesman was quick to remind this reporter that last year Americans spent nearly $60 billion on their pets.)
As programmable digital cameras get smaller and cheaper, the universe of pet, uh, journalism — or is it fine art? — has exploded. Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic have been using these technologies to learn more about the habits of all manner of animals, including house cats.
The work of Leo, a cat from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in Canada, has been made into a poster. Cooper, from Seattle, has had a gallery show of his work, which has also been collected into a book. A collaborative (what else to call them?) of Swiss cows posts their oeuvre at cowcam.ch.
Inevitably, copyright disputes have arisen over who exactly owns the images taken by nonhumans. As The Washington Post and others reported last month, David Slater, a British photographer whose camera was snatched up and passed around by macaque monkeys while he was in Indonesia in 2011, has been sparring with various media outlets, including Wikimedia, over their use of the winsome “selfie” one monkey shot with Slater’s camera.
Boing Boing, the technology and culture webzine, helpfully weighed in last week by reminding readers that U.S. copyright law avers that works by “nature, animals or plants,” along with those produced by “divine or supernatural beings,” cannot be registered.
This month, “PetCam: The World Through the Lens of Our Four-Legged Friends,” by Chris Keeney, a human photographer, will be published by Princeton Architectural Press, perhaps the first-ever book of pet photographs from an established publishing company. (In other pet book news, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the home of the wildly popular Internet Cat Video Festival, is collaborating on a coffee-table book that will explore “the impact of cat videos on art and culture,” according to a news release, and will be financed with a so-called “Catstarter” campaign, but we are getting a bit off topic.)
Featuring the work of 20 critters, including a cow and a chicken, “PetCam,” the book, was inspiration enough for this reporter to investigate the artistic practice of her own cat, Tiger, while on vacation in Rhode Island. Because he is an adventurous guy with fine tree-climbing skills, admirable speed and a hunter’s precision (requiescat in pace, rodentia), I had high hopes for our project, though I did also anticipate a high gore factor, like Peter Beard’s work in Africa. But Tiger vanished the week of the experiment.
Cause and effect? Keeney, the “PetCam” author, wondered. He said his own cat, Alice, had disappeared soon after he clipped a camera on her collar, returning triumphantly a few hours later without it. He eventually recovered the camera under his deck, and “the battery was dead, because Alice had taken 2,000 pictures of the underside of the deck before she scratched it off her head,” he said. “I would not put a camera on an animal that’s not used to having something around their neck.”
With Tiger missing, I scrambled to find other artists in the neighborhood. After all, I had the gear, a GoPro Hero and Mr. Lee’s CatCam, and Tony Cenicola, a New York Times photographer, had driven up for the project.
In an effort to capture more than one point of view, the sort of range Keeney has in his book, I called upon a tortoise, a pig and a miniature schnauzer. How might their personalities and appetites affect their photographs? Would they even tolerate such shenanigans?
Milton is a female gopher tortoise, probably in her mid-50s. George Jacobs, 52, a curator and dealer of outsider and self-taught art, bought her at a pet store when they were both about 10. She is a threatened species; during the Depression, gophers were known as Hoover Chickens, because people would roast and eat them. Watching Milton’s lovely, ancient face and her strangely graceful, ratcheting gait, you wince at the thought.
Tony used wall putty to anchor our GoPro Hero to her back, after removing it from its waterproof case. We had tried and failed to program the CatCam, which is slightly smaller and less expensive ($49 as opposed to $200), but whose functions are less than intuitive. Even Tony was stymied. Keeney reported similar difficulties, though he was able, in the end, to make his work. (He used both the GoPro Hero and the CatCam, but there are myriad other options: If you Google “petcam,” you’ll see a range of devices at various price points.)
Milton posed, as regal as an elephant, amid Jacobs’ children’s blocks, which were strewn on the floor of his bright, sparsely decorated house. We all watched, mesmerized, as she pivoted, yawned and stalked across the carpet to her box and a pile of lettuce, which she scarfed down in great gulps. The GoPro never wavered.
“The thing that attracted me to tortoises when I was a kid was that they were so peaceful,” Jacobs said. “She has been a great companion.”
Earlier, we had met Mrs. Grima, a 4-year-old potbellied pig who belongs to James O. Coleman, a New Orleans native in town for a few weeks. The pig was named after a historic property in Coleman’s hometown, the Hermann-Grima House, and she is definitely a creature of some gravitas, if lacking in obvious charm.
“She’s a terrible pet,” Coleman said, “food-driven and self-centered.” He nonetheless proudly walks her with his dogs most afternoons, drawing crowds along Bellevue Avenue near his apartment. Because pigs have no neck, she wore a kind of harness around her shoulders, and it was tricky to keep the GoPro aloft. (Tony used rubber bands and twist-ties, and his constant ministrations irritated Mrs. Grima, who head-butted him at regular intervals.)
When we took her for a spin in front of the Marble House, Alva Vanderbilt’s 19th-century McMansion here, one gobsmacked tourist asked, “Is that a pig?”
Monique Coleman, Coleman’s wife, was intrigued by Mrs. Grima’s “hoggy brain” framing the Marble House. “She is capturing a symbol of Gilded Age excess and consumption, the very thing that makes Newport worth visiting.” Social commentary, indeed.
Later that evening, we visited Harvey, 9, a miniature schnauzer with a winning, eager personality, who lives with Rufus, a 13-year-old cairn terrier, and Diana Oswald, a book agent and the author of “Debutantes: When Glamour Was Born,” a photography book published last year by Rizzoli. With the GoPro dangling from his collar, Harvey took a burn around his front yard, and then we brought him to the beach and let him rip on his extendible leash.
What sort of work did Oswald think he’d produce? Photojournalism, definitely, she said, like a National Geographic contributor, “all his travels and where he explores.”
One thing you need to know about animal photography is that editing is a significant part of the endeavor. We programmed our cameras at 10-second intervals for Mrs. Grima and Harvey, and 30 seconds for Milton; our animals shot, on average, for about an hour. That means we had thousands of images to comb through. I say we, but it was Tony who put in the time, harvesting about 30 usable photos from each session. Keeney, for his part, said he spent weeks editing for his own book. “After a while, I became kind of jaded and burned out,” he admitted.
Future in photography?
But art, of course, may be more process than product. I asked James Danziger, a photography gallerist, to critique our project. As he pointed out, the animals didn’t choose what images were taken; the cameras merely captured what they were focused on. “To be clear, we’re not criticizing the animals’ artistry so much as critiquing their eye,” he said. “Anyway, there’s not a lot we can say about the first two, the tortoise and the pig.”
Danziger noted that Milton’s interests seemed to be in interiors and food. He thought she might have a career shooting for shelter magazines. As for Mrs. Grima, Danziger thought he detected the influence of Lee Friedlander’s shadow self-portraits. “I also think her use of the top of her head against the various scenes shows a more sophisticated understanding of the history of photography,” he said. “I think she would benefit from going to art school to continue her interests.”
Harvey’s work was in a class by itself. Marveling at his abstract and representational photos — the mesmerizing swoops of color; the archly composed images of his roommate, Rufus, or a yellow fire hydrant, with his own tongue and beard at the top of the frame — Tony wondered how he might use a GoPro to similar effect in his own practice.
Danziger noted influences like Mark Cohen, a street photographer known for his truncated view of human bodies who came to prominence in the early 1970s and whose work Danziger showed recently. Furthermore, he said, “Harvey’s interest in blurry motion seems to refer to a number of photographs taken by Paul Fusco in his famous RFK funeral train series. Using motion to give a sense of the speed of the journey is something Harvey is definitely employing. He also has a sense of humor. I believe he’s referring to Duchamp’s urinal with his fire hydrant images. Harvey is gallery-ready. All he has to do is find the right one.”