Walter Chandoha has been taking cute cat photos before the internet was invented

Story highlights

  • 96-year-old photographer Walter Chandoha is a master in the field of animal photography
  • At one point around 90% of cat and dog food packaging in the US had a label featuring one of his pictures
  • He has photographed over 300 magazine covers, thousands of adverts and written 34 books

This feature is part of Pixel, a new series that turns the lens on some of the most inspiring photographers from around the world. See more here.

(CNN)Once upon a time Walter Chandoha owned the Mob. All he had to do was make a call and they came running to his side.

A photographer born in New Jersey in 1920, Chandoha didn't get mixed up in the wrong crowd. The gang in question was of a feline persuasion, and their owner made them the subject of one of his most famous photographs, "The Mob," from 1963.
    It's one of over 200,000 stock images Chandoha has taken in a career stretching back to his days as a student at New York University. Since then he's amassed 34 books, over 300 magazine covers, thousands of adverts and become the preeminent cat photographer in America.
    Chandoha was taking cute cat photos decades before cute cat photos became the internet's bread and butter.
    There was a time when "cats were used to illustrate just about everything," says the photographer. "I did ads for many of the Fortune 500 companies, [to] little startup companies."
    His home turf was pet food. "There was a very brief period -- maybe a year -- when I'd say 90% of the facings on the dog food and the cat food packages were of my photographs," he says.

    It all started with Loco

    Back in the day you didn't just hire an animal model. Chandoha has owned many cats, but it all started with Loco.
    "I was coming home one winter day," he recalls, "and I saw this cat shivering in the snow. It was very tiny, probably four or five weeks old... I picked him up, put him in my pocket and took him home."
    "At the time my wife and I lived in a three-room apartment in Astoria. As the cat got warmed up, got fed, and began to behave like a cat... I started taking pictures of it, and as Loco grew more and more, [he] became a very important model for me."
    The "starving freelance photographer" and Loco found their way onto the pages of multiple publications.
    "Loco and his cronies [other cats Chandoha later adopted] made it possible for me to do a lot of photography that I thought interesting," he explains. It also allowed the photographer to swap that three-room apartment in Queens for a 46 acre farm in rural New Jersey, where he lives today.
    His legacy is more than assured -- Chandoha is the man who literally wrote the book on his field. "How to Shoot and Sell Animal Photos" is the seminal text for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps.
    For now Chandoha's got a new mission, and life has come full circle: he wants to take a trip to the animal shelter and pick up another "cat that nobody else wants."