2004 is the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese Zodiac. Those born under the sign are quick-witted, curious, and playful like monkeys. Partly because of their human like appearance and behavior and youthful naughtiness, monkeys have been a subject of unique aesthetic value throughout history and recently in the work of famed celebrity photographer Jill Greenberg.
Greenberg’s has a storied career and an enviable portfolio contains pictures of remarkable celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, and David Bowie, dream editorial assignments as well as renowned product advertising accounts for Smirnoff and Beefeater among others. But still, Greenberg seeks to take her photography to new depths exploring her newfound passion and fascination with another biped: monkeys. In early October, 12 studio portraits of Greenberg’s monkeys were unveiled at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles on display through November. The monkeys portrayed have been featured in numerous films and television programs including The Tonight Show, Married with Children, Animal Planet, and Pirates of the Carribbean.
Begun in 2001, Greenberg’s first monkey portrait series was an unplanned departure from her signature the flashy photos. The arresting images showcase a variety of expressions. She discovered her affection for monkey portraits while working on a commercial and had rented a white Capuchin monkey named Katie from the Hollywood based company, Critters of Cinema. Greenberg was so enamored by the monkey’s expressiveness she decided to photograph Katie for herself. “I loved how the first portrait came out. It was really striking how sensitive and human it appeared.” So impressed with the results, Greenberg started renting various species of trained primates and taking their photos as if they were A-list celebrities.
A logical offshoot from her passion of human portraiture, Greenberg finds that because monkeys cannot express themselves verbally, they say more with their expressions and gestures. By the same token, however, she isn’t quitting her day job anytime soon as she maintains that humans are easier to work. “Monkeys can’t take much direction. You have to be very patient.” After photographing several species, Greenberg cannot confidently peg one species of monkey over another as her favorite. She says “I’ve photographed some apes as well, an orangutan, and a chimp, they were the easiest. Some of the capuchins hid behind the table they were supposed to stand on…” Who knew monkeys can get camera shy too?
Studying monkeys, our closest relatives and the link to our primal past provides a plethora of information about how far we’ve evolved and how we are still animals. Greenberg’s photographic study has brought her some insight into the psyche of both humans and monkeys. She says, “both monkeys and humans are obsessive, neurotic, and self-destructive. They pick at themselves and pull their own hair out.” The stereotype of the nutty monkey can just as easily be applied to the humans.
Thus at year’s end, we appropriately usher out theYear of the Monkey, with wacky, regal, sad, and doubtful monkey portraits. Greenberg’s arresting photographs leave a lasting impression that will linger on far past its exhibition at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. See for yourself, as Greenberg’s monkey portraits are on display at her website, www.manipulator.com