November 28, 2000
by Michael Smith
Most people in Mobile think of Catt Sirten as the founder of 92 ZEW. His soft, calming voice goes out on the airwaves every Sunday morning between jazz selections at that location on the FM dial; he also does DJ duties both morning and night weekdays. Sirten's official title is Program Director. But his passion is photography.
Catt grew up in Alabama along the Tennessee border with an older sister and a younger brother, children of first-generation non-sharecroppers. At the age of seven, Catt helped his dad build their first indoor bathroom; before that, he bathed in a No. 2 washtub on the back porch. The kids and his mom picked cotton and milked cows for extra money. Their farm was fourteen miles from the store and six miles from school; there were fifty-six people in his graduating class. It was a Norman Rockwell-like existence, but it was good.
Catt got into radio because of the music. "It was never the announcing," he says. Working in the control room was an emotional experience for him, but the emotion was only going one way.
Sirten says that taking photos is similar to that. "Being a photographer is like wearing a mask: It gives one the freedom to be anonymous. With camera in hand, a photographer can enter a crowded room and take pictures under a cloak of invisibility."
The camera does, however, give the photographer a way to say "look at that" because every photo has a story. Catt has a personal project where he takes at least one photo every day. "So many days are forgotten because nothing monumental happened those particular days." But if he focuses, he finds something that makes each day a bit different from the others; if he takes a photo, he can remember the distinction.
Catt got a late start with the camera, beginning to take pictures at the age of forty. In his first attempts, he routinely cut people's heads off. When a close friend laughed at those photos, he realized that he needed to learn to use the tools of the trade. So he began studying and now reads books, trade magazines, and periodicals on a daily basis, applying what he learns to his art.
During the interview, Catt compared what he does with a camera to his work in the control room. "92 ZEW is just as much a piece of art as a photograph. Radio and photography are similar in that half of the work that goes into it is technical, analytical, and structural while the other half is blue sky and imagination. With a painting, you start with a blank slate and add to it. But in photography, you start with the whole world and narrow the focus to a single frame at a time. A radio station does the same thing, eliminating music that does not fit into its format."
Sirten read that a photographer is lucky to get one good photograph out of seventy-five attempts. Ansel Adams said one a year was good. So, the difference in the professional and the amateur photographer is the number of bad photos taken. Catt just keeps taking pictures.
"The payoff is doing it--clicking the camera. Every once in a while when you're clicking away, though, you know you got it right-- like the perfect segue between two pieces of music on the radio. It's like people who know immediately that they've met the perfect mate. Somehow they just know."
Catt likes all photography because it's new to him: abstract photos, landscapes, and nudes, as well as commercial work because it has to be perfect. He prefers, however, to take pictures of existing things, i.e., things as they already are as opposed to taking photos of contrived things put together for a photo.
Catt has built a business around his passion: Cattprints Photography. He does commercial photography for newspaper advertisement and stock photography, e.g., photos of trees or other objects, which can be sold later for commercial purposes. He has done both formal and informal portrait photography, though he dislikes doing weddings; the half-dozen he has done were for friends. He has also taken photos for the City: Bayfest for four years, First Night for three years, and the Fourth of July fireworks on several occasions. He has produced photos that became album covers and is now contributing work to a book by the University of Alabama Press on the history of Mobile, to be published for the tricentennial celebration in 2002.
Though Sirten takes photos for his own pleasure, "it's magical when someone else sees what is going on in the picture." Stephen Savage, photographer and camera lab proprietor, told Catt that there are three steps in taking a photograph. "The first is to visualize it; the second is to take it; and the third is to share it."
Though Catt's photographs are not yet widely known, they will be. The photos he shares with Mobile are certain to have the same impact on the landscape as the music he puts on the air.
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