Tag: Photography

PITB Reviews: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Movie: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Director: Will Sharpe
Genre: Biopic, drama
Medium: Amazon Original (streaming and in theaters)

Louis Wain was an artist in the employ of The Illustrated London News, one of the most popular newspapers in Victorian England, when advances in photography and printing made it possible for newspapers to regularly include photographs in their pages.

Demoted from staff illustrator to contributor, Wain’s professional skills seemed destined for obsolescence when he and his wife, Emily, returned to their cottage one rainy afternoon in 1886 and heard the distressed mews of a kitten. They found an adorable tuxedo cat soaked and shivering in their garden, brought him inside and were instantly smitten.

They named the baby Peter, and in the months that followed Wain made the growing kitten the subject of most of his idle drawings, sketching him in various situations and with increasingly anthropomorphic features. Wain’s cat sketches were only intended for his wife, but when Sir William Ingram, editor at The Illustrated News, saw the whimsical cat drawings he commissioned Wain to fill two pages with cats as a special feature for the paper’s Christmas edition.

Wain’s cats were a huge hit with readers, marking the beginning of a second, much more successful career as a pet portraitist and one of Victorian England’s most beloved artists. Wain gave his cats human expressions, had them do human things, and put them in contemporary clothing to the delight of newspaper readers and, later, book publishers who sold many thousands of copies of illustrated books featuring nothing but Wain’s anthropomorphic cats.

Louis Wain
A pair of young female cats play with cat dolls.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain weaves a narrative from its subject’s professional life and his lesser-known private life. A polymath, philosopher, amateur boxer and author of some particular ideas about cats and electricity, Wain (played by the always-excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) was an eccentric and not particularly happy with his life until his family hired Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess — a home teacher — for Wain’s younger sisters.

Despite the fact that Emily was a decade his senior and such relationships were looked down upon in Victorian England, Wain and Emily married, made it clear they didn’t care what others thought about them, and learned to enjoy life in each other’s company. With the addition of little Peter, the Wains were a happy family.

Louis Wain did not, however, have an easy life. Three years into their blissful marriage, Emily was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Her illness, the subsequent mental deterioration of one of Wain’s younger sisters, and Wain’s own eventual struggles with mental illness cast long shadows over his outlook and his work.

Louis Wain's Annuals
Wain’s cat drawings were so popular, they were sold in stand-alone books in addition to filling the pages of widely-read publications in Victorian England.

Today, psychologists, art critics and scholars of the man’s career still debate whether — and to what degree — his mental state was reflected in his artwork as his cats took on increasingly psychedelic and abstract qualities. What began as simple kitten sketches morphed into whimsical scenes of expressive cats and eventually trippy images that wouldn’t have looked out of place as album art in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Did Wain truly suffer from severe mental illness, or was he a casualty of a society that banished its “undesirables” to asylums and “lunatic houses”? Was Wain on the autism spectrum? Did the increasingly psychedelic bent of his drawings stem from medications he was given at a time when mental illness was poorly understood and poorly treated?

It depends on what you see in the illustrations. For a man so revered by the public, Wain was remarkably casual about his output — a quality Cumberbatch displays admirably throughout the film — and he didn’t bother to date his drawings. He was prolific, completing many hundreds of cat images throughout his career, in addition to the journalistic images and livestock renderings of his early career, when he was a newspaperman.

Louis Wain's Cats
Wain’s cat illustrations took on more psychedelic qualities as the years passed.

What is absolutely clear is that Wain saw something in cats that others didn’t see until he showed it to them with his pencils. He was credited with a major shift in attitude toward cats and the normalization of keeping cats as pets rather than as mousers. Although cats enjoyed companion animal status in various other cultures earlier in human history, the idea of keeping a feline as a pet was novel in Victorian England.

The shift in public attitude was treated humorously — as much of the subject matter is — by the film, with a bewildered Wain accepting the presidency of the Cat Society of England at a fete in his honor, then explaining his theory that tabby markings were the result of electricity flowing through fur.

The subject of electricity comes up again and again in the film, bringing to mind Tesla and another famous British eccentric, Alan Turing, who was also played by Cumberbatch in the 2014 biopic The Imitation Game. Not coincidentally, both movies show that service to crown and country mattered little when British eccentrics were deemed too odd to tolerate. Like Wain, Turing — a war hero who famously cracked the legendary German Enigma cryptography machine — found himself on the wrong side of the UK’s mental institutions when he was convicted of indecency in 1952 after admitting to police, during an interview in an unrelated investigation, that he’d once had a relationship with another man.

Turing was subsequently placed on synthetic estrogen and drugs prescribed to “cure” his mental condition, which had the opposite effect: Turing, a shadow of his former self, his genius blunted by chemicals, committed suicide by eating an apple he’d laced with cyanide in 1954.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain finds humor in both the light and dark moments of its subject’s life, and it’s a credit to the film’s writers, director and actors that lighthearted moments don’t spoil the more serious narrative themes. For his part, Wain was a man who endured a lot of suffering in his life, and if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that no matter what life throws at us, spending time with cats makes things more bearable.

How To Take Better Photos Of Your Cat

As some of our readers know, I spent the first years of my professional career as a crime reporter, covering everything from murders to mall shooters, plane crashes and freak accidents.

One of the perks of the job — aside from seeing some truly crazy and bizarre things up close — was getting to work side-by-side with amazing photojournalists.

I watched how they handled themselves, what they were willing to do to get their shots and how they captured the essence of a story in just one or two frames.

It turns out photographing cats isn’t much different from capturing random moments of life. Our furry friends are unpredictable, they tend to shy away from the camera and they won’t wait for you to get the shot.

Some of this advice is general and some of it is cat-specific. I’m certainly no professional and I’m always learning, but I hope you can put some of the lessons I’ve learned to good use getting better shots of your own little buddies:

Let kitty forget about the camera

Cats are famously curious, and a shiny new thing must be investigated. As far as kitty is concerned, the best way to investigate is to pad right up to it, rub her cheeks against it, maybe bite the camera strap. You know, the standard stuff.

Let your cat do what she needs to do. If you don’t let her do her thing, the camera could become an item of intrigue, but let her sniff and bunt it a few times and she’ll quickly forget about it. A camera, after all, is clearly not as awesome as a cardboard box, a milk bottle cap or a treat.

When your cat decides to ignore your camera, you can start taking pictures. Which brings us to our next tip…

Distract the little ones with toys

Cats won’t pose for us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t nudge them toward particular actions or postures. Dangling a good wand toy or ball is a great way to get your cat to look at the camera or reach out. Want an action shot? Set a fast shutter speed and toss a ball or a bottle cap.

Catnip and treats, when used strategically, can also help you get the shot you want.

Walter Chandoha
Walter Chandoha, who was known for his playful photos of felines, uses a ball to distract a cat while snapping shots.

Use your smartphone for shots of opportunity

We’ve all been there: You’re sitting on your couch reading a book or watching a movie when you look over and realize your kitten looks adorable sleeping on his back, or your adult cat is striking a majestic pose…but you don’t have your camera.

The second you get up your cat is going to shift or get up to follow you, and the shot is gone.

For those fleeting opportunities keep your smartphone to hand and configure it so you can pull up the camera with a single button push: No passwords, no navigating to the app. Both iOS and Android can be configured to reach the camera quickly. (In most versions of iOS, for example, simply swipe from right to left on the lock screen to get the camera. In Android, double tap the power or home button.)

Below is one of my favorite photos of Buddy taken in a moment of opportunity with an iPhone. It may not be the kind of ultra-sharp image captured by a pro camera, but as one commenter put it, Buddy looks like he’s “radiating love.” I’d rather have a smartphone shot than no shot any day:

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Choose the right setting

Unless they’re sprawled out in an ecstatic nip haze or curling up for a post-dinner nap, cats are usually moving. Unfortunately, your cat is not going to hold a pose for you while you fumble with the settings.

Whether you’re photographing a kitten with limitless energy or an adult who’s just doing his thing, you’re going to want a fast shutter speed — something in the neighborhood of 1/1,000 of a second to avoid blur and capture crisp images of motion.

If you’re not comfortable changing the settings manually, use the sports/motion preset on your camera.

Get up close, on the floor and use a proper zoom lens

Too many cat photos look like they could double as interior home photos that just happen to have a cat in them. If you’re shooting from eye height and your cat is a tiny smudge of fur in the center of the shot, you can do so much better.

Bring yourself down to your cat’s level and either shoot up close or use your zoom.

If you’re using a smartphone or a point-and-click, you’re going to want to get close because digital zoom is worthless: The camera doesn’t actually zoom, it simply displays the view at a larger size. You’re not capturing more detail. That’s why the quality decreases the more you “zoom” and the image becomes pixelated.

If you’re using a Canon, a Nikon or some other brand of dedicated camera, you have the advantage of a true optical zoom that does capture more detail. It can be useful for keeping your distance — and thus avoiding potentially distracting the cat — and for playing with perspective.

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Get down to your cat’s level and don’t be afraid to move in close to get the best shot. (Credit)

Crop judiciously

Shooting in ultra-HD JPG or RAW means you’re capturing more detail with each shot, giving you the option of heavily cropping photographs so your subject dominates the scene without degrading the image quality.

Here’s a raw photograph of Bud on my balcony with clutter in the background and uneaten treats on the ground that could be mistaken for turds or something, and the same image cropped close:

The cropped version puts the focus squarely on His Grace and cuts out most of the distracting junk. Along with a simple tweak to the color levels — giving definition to the shadows and creating better contrast — the photo is improved and its subject appear more vivid.

Cropped Cat Photos
Cropping can make a dramatic difference in your photos. (Credit)

Don’t sweat imperfections

You may have noticed Buddy almost always has gunk in the corner of his eyes. (Just like humans, some cats produce more of it. It’s not a threat to his health.) He’s not fond of me trying to remove it. Early on I attempted to Photoshop the eye gunk out of his shots. Not only was it a lot of work, but it was very difficult to remove it without the photo looking wrong.

I decided to just let it go, thinking people would see it right away, but I’ve never even gotten a single question or comment about it. Nobody’s perfect, not even the Budster. (Shocking, I know.)

Avoid the temptation to go all Instagram-y with filters

There isn’t a camera app these days that doesn’t come loaded with Instagram-style filters to “improve” your photos. I strongly recommend resisting the urge to use them and instead take the time to learn how to filter your photos manually with Photoshop or a free alternative like the browser-based Photoshop clone, Pixlr.

The vast majority of Instagram-style filters are simply presets of the most extreme color, contrast and saturation sliders available. They degrade the image, stripping it of detail and making it look like every other photo on that platform, like autotune for images.

That’s all for now. Next time we’ll take a look at how to apply some basic filters to your photos to emphasize shadow and light, and make colors pop the way they should. Check back for part two in the weeks ahead, and thanks for reading!

Dramatic Photos Show Cat Narrowly Escaping Coyotes

Allyson Seconds was driving through midtown Sacramento on Thursday morning when she saw flashes of fur weaving between cars in traffic.

“I pulled over thinking I’d seen two loose dogs crossing the street and went into rescue mode,” the Sacramento woman recalled. “When I saw they were coyotes I grabbed my phone and took just these four shots of them running and jumping up at a tree.”

Seconds didn’t didn’t understand why the coyotes were so worked up until she reviewed the shots.

“I didn’t realize at first that it was a house cat they were after until I looked at the pictures,” she wrote. “That’s one lucky cat!”

The swift tabby managed to stay a stride ahead of his canid pursuers before going vertical and beating a quick retreat up a tree.

This photo shows the telltale signs of a terrified cat: Kitty’s tail is raised, rigid and three times its normal size while its ears are pinned back against its head.

Cat dodges coyotes
A tabby cat narrowly escapes the jaws of two coyotes on Feb. 6 in Sacramento. Credit: Allyson Seconds
Cat vs Coyotes
The coyotes were right on kitty’s heels. Credit: Allyson Seconds

The next two photos show the end of the chase: In the first we can see just a flash of fur as the cat scurries up the tree, and in the second shot the coyotes look miffed at being outplayed by a domestic cat.

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Credit: Allyson Seconds

 

As for Seconds, she understands what so many people and local media reports get wrong. There aren’t “more” coyotes, as if they’ve suddenly decided to start becoming prolific breeders. The reason those of us in urban and suburban neighborhoods see them more often is because we encroach on their habitats with every development, cul-de-sac and ugly strip mall we build.

It’s a story that is sadly repeated across the globe as animals as varied — and endangered — as mountain lions, tigers and orangutans find fewer contiguous plains, jungles and forests to hunt and forage within.

“This is not even close to a coyote damning post,” Seconds wrote on Facebook. “Housing developments and more homeless living at the river are certainly driving them inland from their more suitable terrain but guess what? The coyotes are adapting to city life and we are seeing more and more of them in all corners of our town. They aren’t going anywhere.”

She signed off by making a suggestion we’ve advocated many times on this blog.

“And as for those worried about their cats for reasons illustrated in my photos? Time to start keeping kitty inside.”