Larry Johnson was neither a photographer nor what most would call a cat person when he left college. Little did he know how much that would change.
Today, Johnson is one of the few people who make their living photographing cats, mostly at shows such as the 40th annual Greater Baton Rouge Cat Club show to be held Saturday at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
Being the official photographer for a local show is an unusual convenience for Johnson, who lives in Baton Rouge but travels all over the nation and overseas photographing cats at competitions. He knows of only a handful of people in the country who do this full time. Shows that Johnson agrees to attend advertise that fact in the expectation that it will draw more people who want him to photograph their cats.
“It’s not like wedding photographers where you’ve got 10 of them or 15 of them or 30 of them in the city,” Johnson said. “My main — I call him competitor, but I call him a comrade as well — lives out of Los Angeles, Calif., and he started about five years before I did, so we both have high name draws.”
That was unimaginable when Johnson graduated from college in 1973 and moved from Illinois to Miami to become a middle school music teacher. The visual beauty of that area inspired him to take up photography, at first using a borrowed camera. He enjoyed it so much that he joined a camera club, attended workshops, built his own darkroom and entered his photography at art shows.
Through this, he met someone who asked him to take photos of her cat and liked the result enough to invite him to photograph a local show.
“You’re young, you’re adventurous, sure!” Johnson said. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
But he would learn.
People who compete in cat shows need photos that show how their cats meet the standards set for their breeds. Organizations such as the Cat Fanciers Association or The International Cat Association define the attributes on which cats in each breed are judged.
“They’re looking for very specific things: How the eyes are shaped, according to the standards,” Johnson said. “Are they supposed to be round? Are they round? What colors are they? The color of the coat, the color of the eyes, ear placement: You can’t have the ears one winged back, the other straight up. You can’t have them looking tall when the standard says they’re supposed to be small. They can’t look small when the standard says they’re supposed to be big.”
Johnson uses toys, features or other visual teasers to get the cat’s attention. Some cats have short attention spans, so Johnson has to act quickly.
“I’m looking for the pose while I’m working with them,” he said. “I’m looking for something specific, and I need to get them looking like they do at home at a foreign environment — at a show with noise, speakers, other animals, people walking by, children running around. It adds much more challenge to my job because there’s a lot more distractions.”
At first, Johnson went to shows in the greater Miami area, and as his name got around, received invitations to others that were in driving distance. Eventually, he started flying to shows, creating a table and backdrop screen out of PVC pipes that he could disassemble and take on airplanes.
He also began dating a woman who bred and showed silver Persians. They married and traveled to the same shows. They later divorced, and she died in 2007.
Johnson had moved to Baton Rouge three years earlier, and he has continued a career that has him traveling most weekends, occasionally overseas. Johnson’s career often takes him to Europe, and he has been to Japan about eight times to photograph shows. In the past two months, he’s been at shows in France and Colombia.
“They advertise me because I am a draw for them,” he said. “If you want pictures done by Larry Johnson, you need to come to our show because you may not see him for another six months, or unless you go to the United States you won’t get him.
“Your pictures have to shine for themselves. I don’t advertise. I don’t push myself out there. I may say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a weekend available. Would you like me to come?’ Most people will come to me and say, ‘Larry, are you available for this weekend?’ ”
He was available for this weekend’s CFA-sanctioned show, which will feature 225 cats in a wide variety of breeds, as well as a competition for household pets, which don’t need to be purebreds. Judging will take place in seven rings in the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center’s Trade Mark Building.
“It’s been part of the Baton Rouge community for 40 years,” said Cynthia Cash, publicist for the GBR Cat Club.