Monday, September 20, 2010

Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz

Like Us: Primate Portraits
By Robin Schwartz
WW Norton
87 pp., numerous black-and-white illustrations, 7½x7½"

It's monkeys, dude. I mean...primates to use the correct term. Monkeys, chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, and a bunch of other words I can't remember. We're all related to them...or not if you're that guy who gives children the anti-evolution speech, which features a chimpanzee with lipstick. The guy says, "Do we look like this?" and the children expectedly shout "No!" Yes, it appears it's true we are actually not related to chimpanzees as much we are too orangutans based upon similarities in DNA. Nonetheless your average child probably couldn't identify an orangutan either as it's been about thirty years since Clint Eastwood shared the screen with a hairy orang in Every Which Way But Loose. Not exactly a film fresh in my memory but when I think of primates I also think of Project X, Gorillas in the Mist, 2001, and Jane Goodall. Where was I? Evolution? The Man with No Name? Monkeys?

It was something about the feeling of a wonderful surprise, let alone a really cheap surprise as in the book "Like Us: Primate Portraits," by Robin Schwartz from 1993. I came upon this used book at Third Place Books in Seattle for a mere $4.99 about three years ago. Now, don't get me wrong. If you're like me you typically avoid thematic photography books in the vein of: things I ate every day, lost dog signage, things colored pink, lost shopping cars, and basically anything involving baby animals. These kinds of books are a cottage industry for publishers, making great money (I would imagine) for impulse shoppers and gift-givers. They line the shelves of SALE sections of bookstores everywhere with big discount stickers affixed in the corners. "Like Us" is not such a book. While it may not have preceded the trend of the mono-book, it does sit in a world apart, approaching the subject of domesticated primates with a cool detachment more likely to be found in an art program rather than a publishing house.

Perhaps unconsciously, I chose this book as a radical departure from the subject of my previous essay on Paul Graham's Japanese work, "Empty Heaven," but didn't realize until looking at "Like Us" repeatedly, and on different days, that it is also entirely done with on-camera flash. In this case, it was likely there was no way around it, rather than flash being an artistic choice. Shot indoors (except for the final image) the level of low-light combined with the bouncy nature of the beasts would make available-light shooting impractical. The images here have the classic deep blacks Kodak Tri-X is known for matched with that most common of lenses, the 35mm. You can imagine Schwartz making a lot of telephone calls and shaking hands to gain entrance into these homes to shoot, though she doesn't share where in particular the images have been made. Are some regions of the country more prone to primate home captivity than others?

Most of these primates seem to have clear personalities, perhaps not that different from the personification of domesticated animals such as dogs or cats, with whom they frequently seem to share home space in these images. Often they are seen like the Celebes ape "Nikka" (1990) garbed in baby diapers or engaged in an human-like activity such as "Minnie" (1989), a macaque whose consumption of a chocolate fudge flavored soda is complemented by the presence of Halls and Velamints, available to assuage a cough or freshen breath. Eerily, a stuff bear gazes at Minnie from the other side of the flower-patterned sofa, as if in a Pinocchio like trance. Said bear seems to want to come to life or at least sip from the straw to savor that yummy chocolate drink.

A baboon named Pete sits atop a Big Wheel, a female Macaque looks distraught, seemingly embarrassed by the notion of a stranger photographing her whilst bathing, and an orangutan beckons us to join her atop a miniature carousel horse. Could it be that these and other primates are really LIKE US?! It's certainly within reason, especially given their general similarity to people with an upright stance, opposable thumbs and personable eyes. Maybe different, too, what with all the tails, extremely long limbs and hairy flesh. They also don't talk but didn't they teach Koko sign language?

"Like Us" doesn't attempt to address the political ramifications of keeping wild animals, nor to include images of the human adults who keep them. Titles are limited to personal name, date, species, gender, and age. The book makes for a collection of humble primate portraits that are pleasantly free of slickness seen in Jill Greenberg's monkey imagery or the witticisms found throughout Elliot Erwitt collection of dog imagery. Somehow Robin Schwartz' "Like Us" manages to be more fun than those projects, feeling more like someone considering at interesting subject rather than a photographer conjuring anything grand. They're primates, primates are strange, and some people are probably a bit odd for keeping critters such as these in their homes. When my next guest comes over to take a look at my photo books, they may be relieved when I show them this book instead of canonical favorites Robert Frank or Richard Avedon. "Check this out. Dude it's monkeys!"

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