Monkey Portraits Artist Statement
By Jill Greenberg
I began photographing monkeys and apes by accident. I had booked a small white capuchin named Katie for an advertising job. She was supposed to be having a tea party with two little girls in a pink room, standing on the table banging pots and wearing pink striped bloomers. For other assignments, I had shot penguins, lions and albino pythons, but this was the first time I had photographed a monkey. Since I had a bit of extra time and a nice client, I decided to do a portrait of Katie.
When I got the contact sheets back, the images startled and amused me. Katie’s expressions were so human and her intelligence seemed so obvious I realized I had discovered a new subject - one perfect for social commentary. Since this work happened to commence in October 2001, just after the tragic events of 9/11, I was discovering my own sociopolitical awareness of the world. These animals’ expressions allow an interpretation that can be perceived as passing judgment on the behavior of their genetic cousins. Ultimately, I ended up having to reshoot the ad with a toy poodle, since the client decided the monkey looked too menacing – not quite the effect they wanted to sell to moms in the Midwest.
I photographed more monkeys and apes whenever I had a chance or felt financially free enough to lay out the funds for these animal actors, with their attendant trainers and handlers. The project has taken about five years to complete and the subjects were photographed at my studios in New York and Los Angeles, as well as at Parrot Jungle in Miami. In all, I have photographed more than thirty different primates, about twenty different species: marmosets, mandrills, capuchins, macaques, orangutans and a chimpanzee, to name a few. They all have resonated with me in different ways. I love the wisdom in the face of Jake, the older orangutan. He is only five years old but looks like an old man. Another favorite is Josh, the Celebes macaque, who is on the cover. His black hair, amber-colored eyes, and long face make him look almost unreal, like a cartoon character.
What became apparent as I was making my selections after each shoot was that I was attracted to the images where the subjects appeared almost human, expressing emotions and using gestures I thought were reserved only for people. The formal studio portrait setting adds an air of both seriousness and humor. Some people have commented that the animals resemble friends or relatives. Sharon Stone remarked as I was shooting her, that she has “sat in studio meetings with guys like that,” referring to “Haughty”. Indeed, monkeys are not as high maintenance as many of the subjects I regularly photograph, albeit markedly more difficult to communicate with and give direction to. Of course, with primates, I don’t have to be concerned with making sure they look “beautiful” or retouching them to appear flawless. They are us and the opposite of us at the same time since they share non of our cultural constraints on behavior or appearance. They seem to be looking back at us, sometimes judging, sometimes in shock. Is it something we’ve done? Maybe it is just that some of us are trying to pretend we aren’t related. For anyone who doubts Darwin (ahem, Mr. President), look in the monkey mirror and think again.