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Cooper Gets One Paw Up, One Paw Down

By Laura M. Browning in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 5, 2010 6:40PM

Photo of Cooper courtesy of The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
We've seen excellent under-the-radar exhibits at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in the past, and we were hopeful that Cooper: Cat Photographer might be one of them. So we were disappointed to find that this exhibit is a mere 18 large photographs hung on a single wall outside the Butterfly Haven. There is only one introductory panel explaining that Cooper is a handsome orange tabby (we're a little biased toward orange tabbies) who lives in Seattle with his filmmaker owners, Michael and Deirdre Cross. Once a week, they put a lightweight digital camera on Cooper's collar that automatically snaps a photograph every two minutes.

We were a bit skeptical heading into the exhibit, thinking that perhaps this was an idea that had played itself out on the Internet long ago. But the resulting photographs are surprisingly artistic, with their cat-sized perspective, unusual angles, and sights that would almost certainly go uncaptured by a bipedal photographer. The way a cat-sized creature sees the world is entirely different from even the best photographer lying on her stomach, camera pointed up, as evidenced by Cooper's often-gorgeous angles and light-soaked subjects.

But we think the Nature Museum missed a huge opportunity here by not providing more interpretive text. There's the obvious "but is it art?" issue a feline photographer inevitably raises, though we think Cooper's photographs are interesting enough to face that line of questioning. There's also the more controversial issue of allowing domesticated cats outdoors---they kill an estimated half a billion wild birds each year, and for a museum with as deeply rooted environmental principles as the Nature Museum, we were a little surprised that they showed this exhibit, and would have liked to see them address the issue of how outdoor domesticated cats might be able to live in peace with the natural environment.

Cooper: Cat Photographer is presented in conjunction with a large National Geographic-sponsored exhibit called CritterCam (similar concept, but for wild animals, and used primarily as a research tool) and is a nice artistic segue into the more scientific uses for animal cameras. It's also conveniently located near one of our favorite places in the entire city, the Butterfly Haven (though we warn you that it's so hot and steamy in there that you'll feel like you're in your hot yoga class). Cooper isn't worth the $9 admission fee, but if you're already there for butterflies or other exhibits, don't just casually pass him by.

You only have one more week to get your cat photography fix. Cooper: Cat Photographer closes April 11 at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive. Admission $9 adults, $6 kids, infants free.