Larry Johnson specializes in feline portraiture and travels around the world taking photos of his furry subjects. Filmmaker Mark Zemel captures a behind-the-scenes look at Johnson’s unique profession in The Purrtraitist. I spoke with both Johnson and Zemel about this project.
When did you first pick up a camera?
MZ: My mom got a family camcorder when I was in high school. Right after she bought it I used it to shoot a before/after video of me getting my wisdom teeth taken out. Dental anaesthetics are no joke. … I don’t know where that video is right now, but it remains one of the funniest things I ever shot.
LJ: I started shooting when I was about 13, but never any serious photography till after I graduated from college and moved to Miami (I was born and raised in Illinois). So much greenery and flora and fauna around I needed to capture it. At this time I acquired a 35mm camera and the saga unfolds from there.
How did you choose your subject?
MZ: I first met Larry on my birthday, two years ago, at a cat show in Stamford, Connecticut. It was my first cat show, and my girlfriend had told me how fun they are, so we went on a lark. I met Larry outside a camping tent he’d set up in the middle of the show floor as a mobile studio. It was really fun watching him work, so I got his contact info and reached out a few weeks later about doing a profile.
LJ: I never thought that I would be shooting cats for a living. Things like this just come into your realm and I was meant to pursue it. Nature was a big part of my photography prior to the animals. Photographing weddings etc. (though I did a few) [doesn’t give me the same thrill].
Do you have a cat?
MZ: I do. Her name is Noodle. She’s about four and a half. We found her in the lot behind our building. She’s very talkative.
LJ: There are three cats in residence (inside of course). A domestic (Starlight). A Maine coon cat (Pumpkin) and a Siamese (Cleo). Starlight tolerates the other two, but Cleo and Pumpkin are the best of buddies.
Have you encountered a particular cat owner or cat that had an intriguing story?
MZ: I did. A couple of the owners had trained therapy cats at the show. They brought them to raise awareness. One only had three legs, but she was super docile and sweet. I also met an owner who breeds a particular kind of African cat. She’d campaigned for a number of years to get TICA to recognize it as an official breed (there’s a whole process you have to go through, but I can’t remember the details). A couple years ago TICA did recognize it, which meant she was able to compete at shows.
LJ: There are many many stories (that is part of the interest in my work). I have done birds, dogs, and reptiles to horses and tiger cubs and panthers all in the studio. Each has a story behind the story. Each subject is a story in itself with their behavior, moods, and reactions, and the final results are amazing.
Was it difficult to film animals?
MZ: Larry was the one who had to get the cats to actually pose. All I had to do was get candid footage of that process and of the animals hanging out in their cages or on the judging stands. So for me it was pretty easy. Larry gave me one valuable lesson: Don’t shoot too close; it freaks them out.
LJ: As I said above, each subject is different from the next. I like the challenge it provides me to use my skills and have “playtime” with the cats.
What is the best part of a shoot?
MZ: What I love about shoots in general is that it gives you a pass to enter scenes that would otherwise be closed to you. I loved being at the cat show because it really felt like a community. Lots of interesting characters and interesting looking cats. But the best part was getting to hang out with Larry and watch him work. It’s really cool watching a guy who’s mastered his craft doing his thing.
LJ: The best is the reaction of the owners when they have seen the outcome of the shoot and the final images. The likes and awes and the animals enjoying the session is great.
Can you share what you’re working on next?
MZ: I’m working on a new doc about direct response marketing. The working title is 1-800-Call-Now. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to getting it out.
LJ: Besides the added travels for the shows (France, Italy, and China) in the next few months. I would like to compile a book on my work and lots of stories about the photos and my experiences.
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