Purr-fect catalyst for art: Catmapper documents Portland cats on Instagram
Anyone who has ever taken a stroll through one of Portland's neighborhoods has undoubtedly been greeted by a friendly four-legged feline — or six.
Compared to some cities in the world that are overrun with feral cats, Portland isn't so much a city of strays.
Many of Portland's outdoor kitties often are well-groomed, collared and simply on their afternoon prowl, taking in the sun and fresh air. Or, perhaps they're lounging and gazing from a colorful neighborhood stoop.
On a recent weeknight, Max Ogden, 28, was carefully interrupting a polydactyl cat's snooze session on one of these porches in Portland's Sunnyside neighborhood. Armed with a professional camera, for the past few years Ogden's been documenting the city's many felines. He's collecting his artsy shots on an Instagram account called Catmapper, which is approaching 4,000 followers.
The Oregon native is the founder and software developer for a nonprofit called Code for Science, which aims to widen the public's access to data. With the ability to work remotely, Ogden found himself biking and wandering around neighborhoods frequently — always discovering new cats. Like many millennials, he started whipping out his iPhone to take photos. It slowly grew into a passion, however, when a friend with a nicer camera turned him on to photography.
"One of my friends said, 'If you want to get into photography, you need a daily habit — something to go shoot in your backyard.' Cats are the perfect subject because it's like a hybrid between wildlife photography, urban street photography and portraits," Ogden says. "And, the internet loves cats; it's an encouraging subject because it's funny."
Ogden now knows many neighborhood cats by name. He knows where Noodle lives, and Mow Mow, and when Queen Walter can be found.
"I've been trying to figure out when 'Cat Hour' is. I have a theory when people get home from work, they let out their cats — so you get all the inside cats around (5:30 p.m.) because people are starting to trickle home," he says. "But then lately, I've been seeing a lot of cats at night, around 10 or 11 p.m. because I think it's been so hot, so they wait until it's cooler."
He enjoys learning about daily cat behavior — especially behind the lens.
"I'm actually allergic, but I think that's why I'm intrigued. I just adopt everybody else's," he says. "I swear, every cat has its own unique set of personality traits. They're complex animals."
We stumble upon a napping cat he already knew to be named Ashley. Despite waving around his bright orange feather toy attached to a bouncy ball purchased at a local cat boutique called Roar, Ashley couldn't be bothered.
"She's out," Ogden says. Queen Walter, one of his favorite cats, couldn't yet be found on her red chair (more like a throne). Queen Walter got her own Instagram account after Ogden took a photo of her for his Instagram, and her owner saw it.
"I can't take (total) credit for it, but I've probably encouraged five accounts," he says.
The idea behind the name Catmapper came from a project that tapped more into Ogden's data-loving side than his artsy one.
"I'm a nerd, so I was into the idea of trying to collect a bunch of data about where the cats are and plot it on a map," Ogden says. iPhone photos track location, so he would be able to get an idea of where he was seeing them the most. But as he got more serious, he started diving into Japanese cat culture — a world of its own.
"I made acquaintances with all these Japanese cat photographers and all of them had a policy where they don't publish locations, because I guess there's abduction issues in Japan," he says.
So he's no longer tracking it in a scientific way, but his sense is essentially where "these Craftsman-style houses with porches on 20-mph streets, any neighborhood will have a good amount of cats," compared to areas with condos or apartment buildings where there often are no yards and folks keep their cats indoors.
Keeping cats indoors or allowing them to go outside is a debate Ogden tries to stay neutral on. Some are concerned about feral cats' effect on bird populations, advocating for "catios" — large outdoor caged areas so cats can be outside but still be contained.
But, he adds, "Obviously, if every cat was inside or in a catio, that wouldn't be very fun for me."
Through his hobby, he's getting more involved in "cat advocacy," going to events like First Caturdays at Laurelhurst Park, and becoming interested in local cat-oriented organizations like House of Dreams and the Feral Cat Coalition. He even attended a Cat Con in Los Angeles. All the while, he feels he's developing and improving his craft as a photographer. But, it's only for cats.
"It's actually kind of ruined photography for me in some ways because I'm not interested in taking pictures of anything but cats," Ogden says. He won't even bother taking a camera camping — there aren't going to be any neighborhood cats to photograph.
And Portland, as Ogden has observed through his travels, including living in San Francisco for a time, is a top cat city — especially for its variety of "weird cats." Close behind are Reykjavik, Iceland, and Taipei, Taiwan.
We wander back by Queen Walter's post to see if she would make an appearance. It turned out, she was lurking on the neighbor's lawn. And suddenly, there were three more cats nearby. There were chalk drawings of the Queen Walter and neighboring Mow Mow on the sidewalk.
It looked as if we had hit Cat Hour. Ogden pulled out his digital and film cameras, as well as his phone to start shooting photos.
"I'm worried about Portland's outside cat population disappearing. It used to be all houses, now it's condos," he says. Ogden moved to Portland from the Oregon Coast in 2006. He's been noticing a lot more condos and high rises going up.
"I'm not going to use the g-word (gentrification). The green space, I'm enjoying it while it exists. I feel like later on, Portland won't have as many weird cats running around," Ogden says.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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Cat related events
Cat Videos Live!
When: Oct. 29
Where: Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave.
Enjoy watching films of cats and kittens in all their fluffy glory doing silly things like chasing lasers, jumping through hoops and impossibly fitting into boxes and bags? Be sure to check out the Portland leg of the national tour. The two-hour program will feature "locally programmed media" and celebrity guest hosts along with the videos.
Find more: catvideoslive.com.
International Cat Show
When: Nov. 11-12
Where: Holiday Inn at Portland Airport, 8439 N.E. Columbia Blvd.
Portland's massive two-day cat show and food drive for the Oregon Food Bank returns. Hosted by the International Cat Association and presented by the New Culture Club, the event was held earlier this year in January. But for those who didn't make it, this is round two.
Submissions to show a cat in the event are still being taken, while entry for spectators is $6 with two cans of food or $8 without cans of food. Children 12 and under are free.
Find more: tncc.org.