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The Private Lives of Primate Companions

Images from Robin Schwartz’s rarely exhibited series of photos of primates who live with humans is on view at Staten Island’s Alice Austen House.

Robin Schwartz, “Minnie” (1989), Stump-tailed macaque, female, 13 years old (all photos © Robin Schwartz)

Over the course of her career, the photographer Robin Schwartz has documented Arabber stables in Baltimore, afflicted animals in America’s zoos, and pigs with free reign of the blue waters of the Bahamas. The series she’s spent the most time on, though, centers on the animal group most closely related to us and also transports us to the most quotidian of spaces. Like Us, photographed between 1987 and 1992, spotlights the lives of primates who reside in people’s private homes. As its title suggests, the project showcases, in stark black-and-white scenes, monkeys hanging out just as we might: lounging on couches, cuddling with our cats and dogs, or even enjoying a can of Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Fudge soda, sipped through a bendy straw.

Robin Schwartz, “Gordo” (1989), Chimpanzee, male, 3 months old

First published together by W.W. Norton & Company in a 1993 book, these endearing images are rarely shown. An exhibition at the Alice Austen House brings them to the public eye for the first time in over a decade — the last time Schwartz exhibited them was in 1993, at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art. To accompany the display, the museum is also showing a selection of Alice Austen’s own photographs of animals (dogs, cats, and squirrels) in the Study of the Alice Austen House.

All shot on film using a 35mm lens aimed no further than three feet from their furry subjects, Schwartz’s images remind of intimate snapshots you’d come across in a family album. You’ll find the familiar tropes of a baby getting bathed in a sink, of a kid pulling the face of a very patient dog, or of siblings looking guilty amid a mess of toys. Except making these memories, of course, are macaques, mandrills, baboons, chimpanzees, gibbons, a young lowland gorilla, and even one ring-tailed lemur.

Robin Schwartz, “Jake and Mugs” (1990), Hamadrayas Baboon, male, 1 year old

Not all of these diverse primates, which range from infants to nearly 30-year-olds, were attained as exotic pets; many were rescues cared for by anthropologists or by animal keepers. Schwartz told Hyperallergic she gained access to her subjects by networking through owners who trusted her and by bartering her own photographs. Monkeys have fascinated her for as long as she can remember, and she had majored in biology in college, which drove her to photograph various species.

Each primate was unique and unpredictable,” she said of the experience. “Primates are not domesticated even though they are born in captivity. For me, this project was a combination of science and art.”

Like Us highlights a world of freedom, where the only bars present are those of toddlers’ cribs. You can spot the subtle line of a leash or glinting chain in a few images, which remind of the underlying hierarchy in the households, but most of these primates are loose, lazily lounging on armchairs or reveling at play. Humans make only peripheral appearances that suggest their roles as caretakers: arms reach into the frame to wash, nurse, and feed the primates, but the animals are usually portrayed alone.

Yet, Schwartz never depicts these spaces as realms of the wild and the lawless; looking at the photographs, you never feel any trepidation that her subjects may make national news for an unexpected, brutal attack. Their benign appearances are the results of her careful and close framing, but also stem from the timing of her shutter: in many of her pictures, the primates return the viewer’s gaze, and in their direct eye contact are silent but expressive messages. To Schwartz, what they relay each time is simple — as she said, “I hope the primates’ eyes tell [viewers] that we are all the same.”

Robin Schwartz, “Charlie” (1988), Chimpanzee, female, 5 years old
Robin Schwartz, “Shibu” (1989), Crab-eating macaque, male, 18 months old
Robin Schwartz, “Josh, Hermonie, Alexis, Rene and Ewok” (1988), Chimpanzees, all under 1 year old
Installation view of Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz at the Alice Austen House (photo courtesy the Alice Austen House)

Installation view of Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz at the Alice Austen House (photo courtesy the Alice Austen House)

Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz continues at the Alice Austen House (2 Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island) through May 28.

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