The roster of felines that BriAnne Wills has photographed is impressive, to say the least. Take Phoebe, for instance, the white-shoed tabby cat of Refinery29 co-founder Christine Barberich. Or Helen, the tiny Abyssinian cat of New York Times Magazine writer Molly Young. And then there’s Pollo, the fluffy black cat of Gamma Folk founder Lily Piyathaisere. Over the past year or two, BriAnne has met over 140 cats with one important thing in common: they belong to some of the most creative women in New York City.
It’s all a part of BriAnne’s photo series, Girls and their Cats, which documents the connection between women and their feline companions. From stories of rough patches to big transitions, each post offers a small window into the lives of these creative women, many of whom stumbled upon their cats at turning points in their own lives. And it was a way that BriAnne, who was new to New York at the inception of Girls and Their Cats, found that she could begin meeting new people in a brand new city. “It was like starting fresh again,” she says. “I knew that I could meet people by taking photos of them; that’s how I meet people everywhere I go. But I was thinking of a way to make it a little bit more interesting…so I was like, maybe I’ll do a photo series. That way I can do a series of women in their homes.” At first, the idea was to shoot women lounging around their small New York City apartments in the nude. But when an inquisitive house cat jumped into a shot with one of her models, the idea clicked – and so was the beginning of Girls and their Cats.
Enter BriAnne’s apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill and you’ll find the same expertly-curated decor that you’d expect to find in the homes of the women she photographs: southwestern-inspired throw blankets, tall snake plants leaning by sunny windows, a prolific collection of photography books. And like her subjects, she has plenty of stories about her own cats, too. While we talk in BriAnne’s living room, a tabby cat is perched on her refrigerator, suspiciously eyeing our conversation until, satisfied enough, she falls asleep in a lump on top of the kitchen cabinet. That’s Liza – a cat that BriAnne and her husband rescued as a kitten from the top of a tree in the middle of the night while they were living abroad in Ukraine. Tuck, a tiny black-and-white tuxedo cat, takes a little extra time to emerge from BriAnne’s closet – he was found matted and starving on the streets of Ukraine. BriAnne took him in, bathed and fed him – and when she couldn’t find an adoption center or owner to take him, took him in as her own. “And now they’re living in Brooklyn as spoiled American cats,” she jokes.
Watching BriAnne tell the story of adopting Liza and Tuck in Ukraine reminds us of why we fell in love with this project in the first place. Because, as BriAnne points out, talking about yourself is tough. And talking about your creative process or the inspiration behind your work – that’s even tougher. But talking about your cats? That’s pretty easy. But more often than not, there’s something greater underneath these stories that branch outside of those about clutzy cats and picky appetites, although those stories are certainly there. Scroll through the @girlsandtheircats Instagram feed and you’ll find stories of loss, unlikely friendships, and adoptions under strange circumstances – all connected by the loving relationships between these creative women and their cats.
Although Girls and their Cats has grown bigger than just a side project, it’s been an instrumental part of BriAnne’s career as a fashion and beauty photographer – and certainly a creative way of growing her network in New York City – far from her hometown of Portland, Oregon. So if you’re inspired to start a side project of your own, BriAnne recommends starting by working with you friends, or people your friends recommend first: “That way, your subjects feel more comfortable with you. It’s a nice foundation to build upon later too. I think it’s more challenging to reach out to people you don’t know and get them involved when you don’t have anything to show them yet.”
As for future goals? BriAnne knows that there’s plenty of Girls and their Cats duos outside of the project’s roots in New York City. “I want to take this outside of New York, or even internationally,” she says. “And I’d like to publish a coffee table book of these stories. But we’ll see what happens next.”