Peggy Chien (簡佩玲) focuses her camera lens on her model, who elegantly unfurls her long limbs, narrows her pale green eyes — and starts batting a ball of string.
The Taipei photographer’s muses are cats (her own pets as well as street cats) and she snaps her pointy-eared subjects in scenic locations across the country. Chien, whose work is currently on exhibit at the Jazz Photo Gallery (爵士攝影藝廊) on Bade Road, Taipei, hopes to raise pet portraiture to an art form, showcase Taiwan’s scenery and culture, and just revel in the company of her furry friends.
Chien started taking photos of her own cats, Huahua (花花), Mili (米力) and Miguo (米果), five years ago when she designed a Web site for her husband’s veterinary practice. Her recently published book, CAT: Charming Attractive Taiwan, features photos of her whiskered subjects enfolded in the cloth arms of a large budaixi (布袋戲) puppet, sunbathing in Aboriginal canoes on Orchid Island (蘭嶼) and lounging happily in front of curtains of noodles hung out to dry at a mian xian (麵線) factory.
When asked why she thinks cats make good photographic subjects, a bit of the age-old rivalry between feline and canine lovers creeps into the former dog owner’s reply.
“Dogs listen to people, but cats are more complex. Their photos are livelier because of that. Dogs’ eyes are always the same, big and black, but cats’ eyes display a lot more emotion. Also, they are more graceful,”says Chien.
Shooting such a complex subject, however, presents many challenges. When photographing street cats, Chien must arrive on location just after dawn, before the sun comes up and her subjects abscond for their notoriously long catnaps. Many cats are startled by the appearance of a camera, so Chien always packs a telephoto lens to combat the skittishness of her camera-shy subjects, who are more demanding than the most high-maintenance of supermodels.
Chien’s exhibition, CAT: Charming Attractive Taiwan (貓博士夫人之貓像掠影), runs until Thursday at Jazz Photo Gallery (爵士攝影藝廊), 2F, 433, Bade Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市八德路二段433號2F), tel: (02) 2741-2256 X603. The gallery is open Mondays through Sundays from 10am to 6pm. Chien’s new book, postcards and prints of her photos are available for sale in limited editions.
“You can’t make a cat pose. They just won’t listen to you. Sometimes I’ll chose a location and take a cat there, but we have to be extremely careful that they don’t run away, because they might never come back. I usually have to take two or three people with me just to watch them,” says Chien.
The fear of having her own cats or her friends’ pets skedaddle is one of the reasons Chien started focusing her camera on Taiwan’s street cats instead. She also hopes to combat discrimination against the animals, which Chien says are sometimes seen as pests.
“Younger people don’t think that way about cats, but older people sometimes do. There are certain Taiwanese superstitions attached to cats and it seemed like every old horror film had a cat prowling around, looking scary. A lot of people take care of street cats, but they are also seen as a nuisance,” says Chien.
Despite her concern over negative perceptions of her bewhiskered friends, Chien has bonded with cat lovers of all backgrounds and ages while on location. Many of them are retirees who while away spare time sitting in parks and feeding local wild cats. In Mutan Village (牡丹村), Taipei County, Chien met the owner of a toy store who proudly demonstrated how he had taught neighborhood cats to leap in the air for treats.
“I don’t want to tell him that all cats will jump for food. That’s not something they need to be trained to do!” says Chien.