How America's Most Famous Cat Photographer Gets the Purrfect Shot

Larry Johnson, a.k.a The Purrtraitist, flies all over the world and charges hundreds to shoot the beloved pets of cat fanciers everywhere.

Sep 29 2015, 1:05pm

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson

For doting cat ladies (and cat men) who struggle to Instagram the full beauty of their pets, there is only one option: Larry Johnson. The Louisiana-based photographer is the Bruce Weber of cat photography, flying all over the globe and charging cat fanciers hundreds of dollars to take the perfect portrait of their beloved rescue or pedigree breeds. He's now the subject of a new short documentary, The Purrtraitist.

New York-based director Mark Zemel followed Johnson over a single weekend at the Central Jersey Cat Fanciers show in Parisppany, New Jersey after running into the singular photographer at a cat show in Connecticut a few years ago. "We chatted a bit and I watched him work, and that's when I knew I wanted to make a doc about Larry," Zemel said. "Initially, I was just surprised [the job of a cat photographer] existed. But, of course, it makes perfect sense if you think about it. Show cats need glamor shots."

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"Larry is definitely well known. People would ask me what I was shooting, I'd say a doc about Larry Johnson, and they all knew him, had had photos done by him, and loved his work. He is definitely a cat whisperer," Zemel added.

When I called Johnson up from his home in Baton Rouge to find out more about the life of a top cat photographer, one thing shone through: His absolute, unabiding passion for what he does. He reels off the list of the characteristics of individual cat breeds like health nuts can recite the E numbers in candy. He has a whole sound bank of feline sounds to communicate with his subjects: Soft approving purring, a tsk-ing clack of the tongue, and a breathy sibilant whirr that I can only assume means, in cat-language, Look right here for the money shot, honey.

"It's an art in of itself," Johnson said. "You need to have a rapport with the animals, otherwise they won't cooperate with you. They have to like you, and you have to like them. Naturally though, I'm good with animals." Controversially, he grew up with a dog, though he now admits that he prefers photographing cats. "They have these very subtle personalities to them. Not like dogs, who are like, 'HERE I AM!'"

Larry Johnson, internationally renowned cat photographer. Screenshot via The Purrtraitist

Americans spend an estimated $60.59 billion on the domestic pet industry, with one APPA National Pet Owners Survey putting the nation's 85.8 million cats in second place in terms of the total number of pets owned across the country. (They came second to freshwater fish.) That means that men like Larry Johnson are in big demand, though he estimates that he is only one of a handful of full-time professional cat photographers in the world.

"Not many of us do this type of work," he said. "In order to get the cats properly photographed, you need to have someone who knows what they're doing with them. You can't just go down to the local photo studio. Other professional photographers refer the cats to me... Because I know how to get them to interact."

He says that he had only been bitten once, "because the cat thought my finger was a toy." Like an exotic animal handler crossed with a French brothel madame, Johnson packs suitcases of fancy ticklers, feather accoutrements and stringed bells to entice his photographic subjects into doing his bidding. Sometimes he'll even bring a little pop-up tent for a little extra privacy.

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson

"When I'm working, I'm in a large facility. There's two or three hundred cats for show. There's 800, a thousand people in the show hall—announcements, noise, all this other stuff that's going on. I have to get the cats to pay attention to me, with all the other stuff that's going on out there."

Johnson taught music at a college in Illinois before moving to tropical Miami and becoming captivated with photographing the hyper-vivid "sunsets, the birds, the flowers." He joined a photography club and a member's wife (who was also the president of a local cat club) asked him to take a shot of her cat. The image ended up on the cover of the club's booklet.

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson

Thirty years on, Johnson is one of the most popular cat photographers in the country. His hyper-cute painterly aesthetic—usually accompanied by backdrops of crushed fluorescent velvet, his subjects wearing expressions of bamboozled acquiescence—is instantly recognizable. Johnson estimates that he does 35 cat shows a year ("I'm out almost every other weekend") and has flown to Toronto and Salzburg for shoots. His popularity has even reached Japan, which he has visited "eight or nine times, sometimes once a year or once every other year."

In China, Johnson will shoot close to a hundred cats over a single weekend—a marathon-like feat that requires special level of patience in itself. "The Chinese cats are the most difficult to work with," he explained. "They're much smarter. The smarter the cats are the more difficult they can be, because if they decide they don't like something, that's it."

Photo courtesy of Larry Johnson

If you can't seem to capture a good shot of Mitzy or Mister Fluffypaws, Johnson advises keeping your distance. "Don't work really close to them, stay four or five feet away. When I tried to do my very first cat I was crawling around on the floor, and the cat got right into my lens."

On a similar note, Johnson claims that he has retouched his subjects, though he does admit his greatest satisfaction comes from turning an un-photogenic cat into a magazine cover-ready star. "I won't use Photoshop to manipulate the cats, I only clean up basic stuff [getting] cat hair off the background. I'm not changing the nature of the cat! But I love it when people come back and say: Wow, you made my cat look much better than it is."