According to Jason Nolen, there are three types of cats: The cats who love strangers, the cats who hate strangers and the cats who are indifferent. Nolen, founder of the Instagram account “Cats of Madison,” says the first kind of cats are difficult to photograph because they get too close and rub against the camera. The second kind get scared and flee. But the aloof cats are just right.
“They sit there like a tableau,” Nolen says.
I joined Nolen to go “catting” — the term he uses when he searches for felines to photograph — in the Willy Street neighborhood on a warm, sunny afternoon in late October. Nolen, who mostly photographs cats he finds outdoors, says this might be one of the last good catting days for a while. With winter coming, the cats of Madison will be heading indoors. Nolen, like a squirrel hiding nuts away, is storing up photos to last him through winter.
The first cat we see this afternoon, a beautiful brown Bengal with black spots and piercing green eyes, is walking down a sidewalk on Dickinson Street. Nolen has never seen this cat before, but, unfortunately, it runs away. Nolen respects the cat’s wishes. He never chases after one but will note its appearance on a spreadsheet he keeps to track the city’s cats.
We continue to “cat alley,” a stretch of blocks near the Yahara River where Nolen has had good luck before. As we walk along chatting, Nolen occasionally stops and silently points, having spotted an incognito cat. Sometimes it’s just the tips of the cat’s ears, peeking out above a porch railing, or a tail disappearing around a corner. “This is really the first hobby I’ve ever had,” Nolen says. “It’s similar to birding, but I know way less about cats.”
Nolen, a sociology lecturer at UW-Madison, started the Cats of Madison page in May when he worried that he was annoying friends by posting too many cat photos on his personal Instagram page.
His first photo on May 27 featured Ziggy, a popular east-side cat who lives on Williamson Street. For the next couple of weeks Nolen went on long walks every day and noticed cats everywhere. One night on a walk with his girlfriend, they heard meowing and leaves rustling and then “a cat fell out of the sky.”
“This is a sign,” Nolen thought. “A cat just bombed us from a tree!”
With more than 3,000 followers, Nolen tries to post a photo a day, sometimes using guest photos. On a couple of occasions, the page reunited people with their pets. One time a cat wandered into a home on Willy Street and someone sent him a photo to post. “Within 30 minutes someone said, ‘Hey, that is my cat!’” Nolen says.
Today we strike out on cat alley, but we do see one of Nolen’s favorite cats sitting on a porch on another street. As we head home, Nolen explains that he loves seeing cat regulars in his neighborhood, like Charlie, Memow, Lucy and Violet, and he loves that people send him photos and have conversations about the cats that he photographs and posts online.
Just then, Nolen spots a black and orange cat making its way down the front steps of a porch on Clemons Avenue. The tag on the collar reads “Mitzi,” and Nolen, kneeling on the sidewalk taking pictures, is thrilled because this is a new cat. As the sun slants low in the sky, illuminating the golden leaves, Nolen smiles and says: “This has been a really good cat walk.”
Camera Nolen uses: iPhone
Number of cats he has photographed: About 60
Number of photos posted on Cats of Madison (including guest photos): 139 as of Nov. 2, 2016
Cat with the most “likes”: Charlie, with 677 (posted on Halloween)
Weirdest animal Jason has seen while catting: a two-headed rabbit
Cat with the most comments: The fluffy cat in the leaves, posted on Oct. 19 (27 comments)