Dennis Low: Take Me To The Kittens!

UPDATE as Of August 16, 2012:

“Take Me To The Kittens!” was named ‘Best Event’ by the trustees of National Pet Month out of more than 600 events.  As a follow up, Low will present “THIS WAY PUPPIES! (for a shoe filled with water). The exhibit will take place August 20, 2012- September 19, 2012 at the  University of Hull ArtCafé, Middleton Hall. Admission runs  Monday-Friday 10:00 a.m – 4:00 p.m and entry is free.

ORIGINAL INTERVIEW from March 15, 2012

D. Jun-Yu Low, who goes by Dennis, is a self-taught photographer based in Kingston upon Hull, in the East Yorkshire area of Britain. Growing up with a Chinese mother who greatly disapproved of his affection for cats, Dennis endured a lot of hand scrubbing throughout his childhood. So he did what any rebellious child would do, as soon as he had a house of his own he also got a cat straightaway. This eventually led him to a talk given by renowned feline behaviour expert, Vicky Halls. Interested in learning more about these cats in their natural state, Low travelled to the isolated coastal town of Essauoira, Morocco, which is home to one of the largest populations of stray cats on the planet. There he found, and photographed, an alternate reality for cats, a place where cats are truly left to their own devices. This trip resulted in the “Take Me To The Kittens!” photographic series, which, as part of National Pet Month in the UK, 15 large-format prints will be on display and available for purchase at Artlink in Hull from 30 March through 12 May. All proceeds for the sale will be donated to the Hull branch of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. We had the chance to talk with Dennis about this project that brought together his love of photography and admiration for these fascinating felines.

Q: When were you first exposed to the medium of photography and how did your interest in it develop?

A: I first became interested in photography when I was a schoolboy. My photography enthusiast music teacher managed to get permission to convert a broom cupboard into an unventilated darkroom that could hold up to six children at a time. I saw a print develop before my very eyes and was instantly hooked for life.

Q: You mentioned that you are a self-taught photographer. How did you develop your skills? Have you ever participated in a workshop or portfolio critique as part of your development? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: So, I’ve had the very basics of photography under my belt for decades now, but what really got me thinking seriously about photography was photobooks. Until my brother-in-law introduced me to his library a few years ago, I never even knew photobooks existed. It seems a strange omission now, but trust me, there are thousands of amateur enthusiasts out there who can rattle off the specifications of the latest dSLR model yet have no idea who their favourite photographers are or who’s working with their preferred subject.

Photobooks introduced me to the idea of taking photographs as a body of work, one that’s intended for a wider audience. They showed me things I never knew could be possible with photography. They wiped the floor with all those formulaic rules that enthusiasts tend to get spoon-fed and, cumulatively, they’ve lent at least a degree of what fine artists call “criticality” to how I take and select photos. I’m more knowing, now, of photographs that have come before, and more aware of ways in which my own work could fit into that conversation.

Kittens are the very opposite of what people think about when they think about serious photography and art, so I suppose those photographers who’ve opened up the field and made domestic animals a respectable subject for photography – Tony Mendoza, Elliott Erwitt, Pentti Sammallahti and, more recently, Charlotte Dumas – would be the ones who’ve had the most important influence on my work to date. With the exception of Mendoza, they’re all dog-people too, so I get to admire them without being too overwhelmed at how good they all are. Magnum photographer Alec Soth said, “If in your heart of hearts you want to take pictures of kitties, take pictures of kitties.” I don’t know how literally he meant that to be taken, but I’m very pleased he said it.

More directly, I had a useful intervention from fine art wildlife photographer, Nick Brandt, who, a few years ago, was honest enough to tell me that he thought my earlier attempts at cat photography (featuring my own cats and their prey, all unstaged) were “grotesque and irresponsible”. Brandt’s admonition was hard to take at the time, but it pushed my ideas further, made them stronger, and for that I’m very glad indeed. I’ve heard positive things from fellow photographers who’ve attended portfolio critique sessions and I am looking forward to my first, with some degree of trepidation.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Leica was a childhood dream for me. My first camera was an ancient SLR from the ‘70s and it weighed a ton, which made it difficult for a small boy to use and carry. One quiet weekend, I was in my local camera shop and the manager presented me with the demo model of the new Leica M6. He even said I could take it into the street and have a play. The shutter whispered rather than kicked, the lens was the size of a walnut and it felt like a camera that had been scaled down just for children! “It’s expensive,” said the manager, “but, who knows? Maybe one day…” Two decades later, I bought an M9, thereby fulfilling a little promise I’d made to my future-self years ago.

Q: What about the M9 made it your camera of choice for this project?

A: It’s small, unobtrusive, easy to use, compatible with great lenses and makes great pictures. It also has the unnerving ability to make me feel calm and happy whenever I pick it up.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: I love – and I’m stilling learning – how photography can be so many things to different people. For me personally, it’s hopelessly simple: I see, I take a picture. Sometimes, it’s the other way round, even if I don’t realize it at the time. I enjoy the clarity of photography, the way the entire world sometimes seems to slow down a fraction when I take a picture, how I feel sort of swallowed up by my surroundings when I take a picture. That sounds daft now I’ve said it, but I bet there’ll be a handful of readers who’ll be nodding.

Q: Do you personally own a cat, insofar as anyone can own a cat? The conventional wisdom is that a cat owns you rather than vice-versa because of their legendary independence and self-sufficiency. Do you agree?

A: You can’t own a cat, certainly not in the same way that you can own a car or a house, but, then again, you can’t really own any living thing can you? Mercifully, my cats allow me the comforting self-delusion that I’m not owned by them and am thoroughly self-determining and independent!

Q: Evidently your project on documenting stray kittens in Morocco was inspired by a talk given by Vicky Halls. What are some of the things she said about feline behaviour that caused you embark upon this undertaking, and did you have a special fondness for cats to start with?

A: When I was little, my neighbour had a cat that I loved to stroke whenever it came into our garden. My mother, like many Chinese mothers, had other ideas, and believing them to be flea and disease-ridden, would scream hysterically before scrubbing my hands with a nailbrush and scalding hot water (two parts punishment, one part hygiene). I didn’t care and when I got a home of my own, I got a cat of my own.

When my local veterinary practice organized a talk by renowned feline behaviour expert, Vicky Halls, I went primarily to learn a bit more about my cat, one of a litter of feral kittens that I’d found at the bottom of my garden one day. Almost all behaviour problems, she said, came down to the fact that pet owners stopped thinking of their cats as cats. We’d think of them as children, teddy bears or fashion accessories, but not cats. That one idea made a lot of sense and stuck with me. I found myself wondering what cats were like “in the wild”, but soon discovered that domestic cats just don’t live in the wild. The fishing port of Essaouira, Morocco, is home to one of the largest populations of stray cats on the planet. I figured if I was going to find cats at their wildest, ones that weren’t treated as children or teddy bears, it would be there and so I went!

Q: Your kitten images have been described as feline photojournalism. Do you agree that, apart from the particular subject, you used a photojournalistic approach in creating your kitten photographs, and how do you think the end result parallels the classic coverage of humans and their way of life?

A: My pictures are certainly the result of an investigative process; unmanipulated and unstaged, they share photojournalism’s concerns about objectivity and truthful representation. I guess where their similarity with photojournalism stops, however, is when it comes to notions of timeliness. Photojournalists often record events; their work primarily derives meaning from the fact that they depict, and are seen by, the “here and now”.  But cat-time is very different from our time: it’s a cyclical life, governed by instinct and basic needs and photojournalism is just too human for something that wildly different.

If people come away from my exhibition, thinking they’ve seen cats as they are where humans are just another piece of the environment rather than the masters of that environment, I’ll be happy. Musing on his own cat, the celebrated philosopher Jacques Derrida said, “The animal looks at us and we are naked before it. Thinking perhaps begins there”. We have a long way to go before we can think ourselves into the heads of other animals or think of ourselves as just one animal amongst many, but I try to give that impossible task a go in this exhibition all the same.

Q: Has your perception of, or attitude toward, kittens and cats changed as a result of your immersion in their world?

A: Absolutely – my cats at home look like the Moroccan cats to me now but, of course, they’ve not changed at all; it’s my perception of them that’s changed. Whereas I once saw the odd places they ended up sleeping or sitting as peculiar and very entertaining, I now interpret those behaviours in terms of territory, vantage point or camouflage and feel more respectful toward my cats as a result. I’ve also stopped trying to cuddle them when they are guarding and being very serious!

Q: Do you believe that kittens are better off living in a more-or-less natural state as stray animals rather than being kept and cared for as pets? Is there a sad undertone to this story as well as an outwardly playful one?

A: Cat life in Essaouira is hard and fast, that much is clear. It should be remembered though, that cats are domestic animals and as domestic animals don’t and can’t exist on their own, they will always be better off if humans get involved. In Essaouira, the cats look better when locals provide them with food to eat, improvised water bowls to drink from and cardboard boxes to shelter in. Those that have come across volunteer vet organisations such as Help the Street Animals of Morocco who neuter them, give them worming tablets and vaccinate them against disease, tend to look happier and healthier still.

And let’s not forget that caring for cats isn’t a one-way relationship. In the past, cats helped curb the mouse and rat populations in our granaries. Today, interacting regularly with cats has been linked to reduced stress levels and a lower risk of heart disease, less sick-days off school and work, and reduced rates of allergies and asthma in children. How we treat cats is as much about our attitudes toward ourselves as it is about them. Mahatma Gandhi went even further when he said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Seen in this light, our attitude toward cats is nothing less than a reflection of the kind of society we wish to be.

Unashamedly, “Take Me To The Kittens!” is a celebration of cat life. I suppose that could be confused with my being pro-stray and anti-pet. What I’m really in favour of is cats, pets or strays, having happy, healthy lives and being able to express their natural behaviours. In America, in the interest of curtains and furniture, it’s common to declaw pet cats, which leaves them defenceless and compromises their ability to walk, run, climb, jump, stretch and scent-mark. Those poor cats have it worse than Essaouira’s strays, I think.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Comparing small things with great. I like to think of my photography as firmly implanted in classic Leica territory: unstaged, ambient-light photographs, taken quickly, with the minimum of fuss and equipment, held together by a sense of geometry and a sort of connecting sympathy for one’s subject. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but I tend not to crop my photographs once they’re taken – the edges of my pictures are important to me and I love the partially-framed unpredictability that Leica cameras are so good at yielding.

That’s where my roots are anyway, but I feel myself branching out and taking up more contemporary ideas as I learn about them. In “Take Me To The Kittens!” I’m making large prints (24″ x 36″) for the first time in my life and exploring what that scale can do. I’m finding my way around colour to and looking to William Eggleston, Martin Parr and, most recently, Alex Webb, to see how differently it can operate.

Q: How does this series “Take Me To the Kittens” and your series “The Devoted Photographers of Antoni Gaudi” (currently on view at the Ferens Art Gallery) fit into your oeuvre? What genre(s) do you focus on?

A: There’s a lot of important photographic work that’s already been done on tourism, notably Martin Parr’s “Small World” and Thomas Struth’s “Museum Photographs”. As with “Kittens!” I wanted my pictures of tourist-photographers in Barcelona to be about the tourists themselves, not about the places they visited or the monumentality of the sights they took in and certainly not part of some larger polemic about whether they’re enjoying themselves or understanding the things they see. Sometimes, it’s hard enough to photograph things – cats or tourists – as they are. I guess that’s where I’m at, photographically, for the foreseeable future at least.

-Leica Internet Team

You can find out more about the “Take Me To The Kittens!” exhibition, which opens 30 March, by visiting the website, www.takemetothekittens.com and also check out the Facebook Group.