When monkeys are the beautiful people

Jill Greenberg did formal portraits of a group of simian actors. The results will make you smile – and ponder.

Pumpkin's impish grin reminds me of my cousin Ricky, who, as a child, always put on that angelic face after doing something he shouldn't have. Moe looks like a royal having his portrait painted. Other photographs remind me of various friends, deep in thought.

Each of Jill Greenberg's 75 portraits will remind you, too, of someone you know – even though her subjects are simians.

Page after page of monkeys and apes stare out at us from Monkey Portraits. They exhibit a wide range of emotions, personalities, and behavior that is, well, human. The body language, facial expressions, and bad hair days are all familiar.

Greenberg's decision to photograph her subjects in studio settings with neutral backgrounds, just as humans might be photo-graphed, only serves to draw more attention to the similarities between us and our distant relatives.

I once photographed a capuchin helper monkey named Minnie who acted as the hands for a quadriplegic. Minnie could pick things up for her master, scratch his head when needed, open the refrigerator door, and follow directions to perform a number of tasks. The emotions that played across her face as she reacted to me and my camera reminded me of a child. I was thrilled when she bonded with me, showing off her facial expressions and looking directly into my eyes.

I experienced a similar feeling as I was photographing mountain gorillas brooding, posing, playing, and gazing at the sky in their habitat in Rwanda. It's obviously easier to protect animals we can anthropomorphize. I don't know that Greenberg had this in mind, but the connection one feels with her monkeys and apes is powerful.

Greenberg has been photographing celebrities for 15 years. As it happens, her monkeys and apes are also actors – having appeared in TV shows, commercials, and print ads – who arrived for their close-ups with trainers and handlers in tow. One can only imagine how these intimate and expressive images were coaxed from the animals.

The photographs are fun but also sobering. Greenberg writes, "They are us and the opposite of us at the same time since they share none 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?"

You may buy this book for laughs. But don't be surprised by the deeper feelings provoked by the expressions of these marvelous, unpredictable creatures who gaze back at us without the mask of self-consciousness.

Melanie Stetson Freeman is a Monitor staff photographer.

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