jonathon bowman – monkey business

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Jonathon Bowman

Monkey Business

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I began taking photos at the monkey houses at the zoo, fascinated by the inner lives of our genetic relatives. I soon realized that what I found compelling in the photos I had been taking was the space that exists between the viewer and the subject. The plexi-glass that separates our lives from theirs is also a surface that records, in scratches and smudges, a history of the lives lived on the inside while reflecting back the glare of our own gaze.

These are records of the space between.



My interest in photography began while working in South Korea. I was looking, I think, to find a voice with which to express the cultural disconnect I was feeling.

Since returning to my home in Ontario, I have been seeking to make sense of what was once familiar.

These photos are a product of those experiences.

Editor’s note:

Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

35 Responses to “jonathon bowman – monkey business”

  • An original and interesting approach to an usual subject, an approach which is clearly stated in the introduction and faithfully accomplished in the pictures (maybe with the only exception of image #10). Image #6 is stunning…

  • Zoos, at their best, are cruel and unusual punishment for primates. And this particular zoo seems to be even worse than most. The photos are o.k., not great as photos; but, they are certainly an indictment of our unethical treatment of these animals.
    (rant mode off)

  • reminds me of work from lunatic asylums.. cannot help but feel sorry for these creatures.

  • these pictures are touching.
    we remove the forests, and there will be one day where we have to admit this is the only home our primates have.
    how would it feel if we were treated like this?
    or – as david bowen said – where else are we treating humans like this…

    congratulation for being published – your pictures make me think.

  • Interesting mini-essay Jonathon — I’ve seen the pictures in Another Place.

    I worked in a good zoo for a while and would not want to be too judgemental based on a few pictures of the indoor areas. Some zoos are crummy; some zoos have excellent outdoor areas, and animals get complimentary health care (without the need to take out insurance) and a life free from predators. Life in the wild is not a bed of roses either — nature red in tooth and claw, and all that.

  • This essay hits me in the gut. Though I live in a city – Detroit – with a zoo that was one of the first back in the 1930s to create environmentally-sensitive living spaces for their animals – I still object to animals being taken from their natural habitat and extended families solely for the benefit of humans.

    Jonathon’s photos are searing, especially those like #1 that abstract the primate in a way that heightens his/her connection to the human family. His text personalizes this essay in a very real way. My only complaint is that I wanted more.


  • Reminds me of ward 017…….. a weird place where me, Mick and Raeles used to interned ……zapped in the morning just in time to play ask any vegetable in the afternoons…………….. man I loved that squirrel house some days.

  • Normally photos from a zoo live in the domain of the snapshot, complete with other visitors and the sight of barriers in the frame. These are a breath of fresh air, so clear, textured and to the point. The Black & White really bring out a kind of distress, energy from the Monkeys within. These are great.

    Number 10 does stand out for me for being different to the rest of the set, I don’t think it is as successful.

  • I think that’s very well done conceptually. It’s very difficult to express that feeling of displacement one gets after returning home after a long stint abroad. Though saying it feels like being a monkey in a zoo and/or watching monkeys in a zoo sounds cliche when put into words, I didn’t feel that from the pictures. So I like it on that score. I also have a general affinity for light diffusion filters, so the Plexiglas affect works quite well for me, also.

    If it were merely a portrait of zoo horrors, I would like it much less. I’ve spent a lot of time in zoos and know that it wouldn’t be any more difficult to put together a series of happy monkey pictures. If one is going to do a horrors of the zoo piece, you really can’t have one without the other.

    Although I’m not indifferent to the plight of our fellow life forms, I also see an intellectual danger in too much anthropomorphizing. I find Paul Russell’s comment a bit chilling. Zookeepers, and their human equivalents, are always too eager to make the argument that trading freedom for safety is a good thing. Some of us freely make that choice, others no, but all too many have it made for them.

    And finally, this is the second recent essay that plays well with Nine Inch Nails’ “Right Where it Belongs.” That’s got to be the greatest song ever for accompanying slideshows, kinda what Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is to film soundtracks.

    See the animal in his cage that you built
    Are you sure what side you’re on?…
    What if everything around you
    Isn’t quite as it seems?
    What if all the world you think you know
    Is an elaborate dream?

    See, it works great for that displaced feeling you get when you’ve been abroad, too.

  • bad ass use of a camera …. a huge, as in a real crazy huge print on my wall of No 7 please …..

  • Hey Jonathan, glad to see these images getting wider viewing, they deserve it. These images really hit me in a visceral way leaving me disturbed and uncomfortable. They are very powerful and show us something we might not notice otherwise. Bravo!

  • Number 7 says it all, loudly and profoundly.

  • somethig very difrent on BURN. animals !!!!
    nice work!
    n 9 is great! i love it .
    un saludo

  • I like No.10, it says a lot about the environment the live in being full of things “we” thing “they” want but look at the animal turning his back on all that and looking out to the world of freedom and trees. It looks like a cell more in that picture, 9 is sad and 7 is amazing. Great idea, i`m sure most everyone has been to zoos and thought through the feelings this story shows but well done for thinking to photograph that emotion. Damon

  • Really powerful series of images and particularly evocative for me having grown up in a private zoo, often reading and doing my homework next to the orangutan enclosure, enjoying their quiet company but wishing I could set them free. These pictures are beautiful and upsetting. They make me so sad. Nos. 1 & 2 in particular bring out human-like qualities and make me feel sick that we allow such sensitive, intelligent, loving and innocent creatures to be imprisoned behind plexi-glass in the name of science and education, when there are many humans, guilty of hideous crimes, running free as the wind. This is important work I think. Well done.

  • Jonathan,

    for me this series is close to perfection- very primal, dirty and raw. I think you’ve avoided making the zoo look like a prison which makes this more fresh to me, in the best images you’ve focused more on the monkeys in a way that makes them seem to be posing for you – this is what works for me. Number 7 will stay with me for a long time, as will number 1. A photographer Britta Jaschinski called ZOO which you might enjoy. Congratulations and thankyou Jonathan!

  • what separates us?
    defines us?

    *** *** *** *** *

  • Fucking Brilliant!
    I’m with Vivek on # 7 , but not so keen on # 5 ,the only low point for me.
    If the chimps wern’t mad when they went in they sure as hell are now,
    All round damn fine work and worth pursuing further.

  • Terrific series Jonathon, from beginning to end.

  • As a set of pictures showing that it’s a bit shit to to have primates in zoos then you’ve done a great job. I think it’s fine to be anthropomorphic with apes we are only big monkeys ourselves. I always feel a little sad when I’ve been to a zoo and these pictures leave me feeing exactly the same. MNM is right if you like this have a look at Britta’s work

  • Zoo.. one of the themes that always has fascinated me.. thanks for the link to Britta Jaschinski, didn’t know her..

  • I did my look, go away for awhile, come back and close my eyes before reopening the essay to see what images from came clear in my mind experiment.

    These were the ones:


    That’s a pretty darn high ratio.

    I was reminded too of a moment that I experienced in the Mysore zoo in Southern India. In one of their enclosures, there is a very old chimp of some sort other than the most common ones that we are used to – so old that it has lost much of its hair. I spotted it as it walked upright across the grass. It did not even look like a chimp, but like a very old man, naked and forlorn.

    Then I thought of a certain monkey in the zoo in Eureka, California, where I lived for a short while in my youth. This monkey would throw poop at people, and masturbate in front of them.

    Anyway, I think you’ve got a good start on an essay that could use a little more work, yet.

    On the other hand, if you feel you’ve spent enough time with it and want to move onto something else, fine, because you can never get it all.

  • I do not think the series ios that different from so many shown on BURN. A series of pictures/images based on one concept, destined to highlight one personal anxiety vs reporting on the world our eyes/heart see. For ex. The work on Sicily, of the latest here, even though seemingly so different, was about this, and before that, many others. The images might elicit zillion reactions, but the author probably wishes we restrain ourselves on what he/she strove for.

    Not a criticism at all, but a very interesting trend in BURN submissions, and maybe a sign of David following that trend, ie. photography is to be more art than simply “my eyes have seen…” from now on. No idea, personally, save that, of course, the greatest, or most achieved photographers were/are also supreme artists, since 1849. So, maybe all the others too, now! ;-)

    The highly contrasted pictures don’t come out that great, as I think this is the perfect type of essay for classic medias, like book, prints, and walls, rather than our screens. But your idea is well conveyed, we do react when looking at them, and that’s testimony to the veracity of the feelings gripping you inside, Jonathon (than?).

    Last, We do treat each other (humans) like that. probably more guys and gals are and have been living in stolid, abject penitentiary conditions than monkeys in this world.

  • I find this photos really good, personal and fresh.A subject that can be around the corner, and shows me that as long as there is a personal approach to a subject ,no matter what it is,It can became a fantastic essay. Really good job congratulations.

  • Great images. The thin line between humans and monkeys, also between sanity and madness.
    Looking at animals held inside a small space without much stimulation shows us an image of how humans turn if kept under simular conditions.
    These pictures the best pictures i have seen from a Zoo, the true story. Cruel, but beautifuly composed with a lot of depth and storytelling.

  • This series immediately made me think of Rebecca Norris Webb’s book “The Glass Between Us”. I really like some of these photos and I think the idea of photographing this barrier between humans and animals is very strong. In my eyes this is a sad relationship as we, humans, do not hold a more important place on this planet than apes, cats, trees, sponges, lizards, etc.

    Another comparison that I would like to make is the similarity between these photos and the story by Jenn Ackerman on the mentally disabled in prisons. From a purely visual point of view I see many parallels. There are other deeper comparisons to be drawn as well.

    Herve, it’s interesting what you say about the trend on Burn toward more conceptual work. I also made similar comments 6 months – 1 year ago. However, I’m beginning to be drawn more towards these projects that perhaps have some documentary aspect, but perhaps lure the viewer in, with small nuanced suggestions rather than direct news style communicating. The difficulty seems to offer some comprehensible information while at the same time finding a new conceptual framework that is fresh for the audience. The balance between the two without going too conceptual appears to be the challenge. I think publishing “A Monkey Business” and “A Troubled Paradise” next to one another illustrates this difference perfectly.

    Happy holidays and lot’s of health and happiness to everyone in 2010!

  • Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to view the set and leave their thoughts.

    It seems that there are two issues that have been twigged here: Paul, you’ve voiced your concerns about fair representation- a valid one, I think, and others have commented on the conceptual nature of the project.

    I’ll admit that I have been wrestling with the first. This project did not begin, and never became for me, a critique of zoos. As callous as it may sound, politics never really entered into the picture (ahem) for me. I began photographing in zoos because they are visually interesting places, I then discovered the visual trope created by the reflective nature of the plexi-glass, and worked that trope as much as I could. As such, it has been primarily a formalist exercise. If the monkeys represented look terrified/angry/depressed, well, that’s because that’s they way they looked. But, as we all know, photos lie. The wide-mouthed fellow in photo 7 – that’s not a scream. He was yawning. Does that make this a mis-representation? Probably. Does that make this photo dishonest? Possibly. I’m still not sure. Context certainly suggests that it’s a scream, but the viewer brings their own politics/experiences to bear as well.

  • As for the second issue – purely documentary vs ‘conceptual’ photography – I’m interested in hearing more perspectives on this. It’s not something that I have given much thought, so I won’t say a whole lot about it, save that this project didn’t really set out to BE *anything*. It began with a single image (number 8) that had some compelling visual elements, and that I thought revealed something new about the lives of animals in zoos and grew organically from there. I was never thinking in terms such as ‘document,’ ‘concept,’ ‘agenda,’ etc.

    What I’ve articulated in my introduction – that all came after the fact. I wasn’t aware of why I was photographing what I was at the time, but rather pieced it together later.

    I’d be interested in knowing about others’ experiences in this regard? Have you always began with a clear agenda, or do projects grow from an experience, a loose idea, a single photo?

  • very interesting images indeed! shooting through the plexiglass sure does make the images a tad bit freak, yet compelling.
    DAH or Jonathon- is there a personal site of jonathon’s/your’s we can check out?

  • Great work Jonathon. I think your artist statement and comments are brutally honest and non-grandiose which is a welcome change from most artist statements published here. I think the debate or discussion of documentary vs conceptual photography is a really interesting one. For me personally the essays that have really worked on Burn have been conceptual in nature. The more typical photo-journalistic style of the type published in the media at large are of no real interest other than to document a happening. I won’t call it an event or fact as these can easily be manipulated by editorial comments and context as well as the impact the photographer actually has on the image captured (call it the Photographic Uncertainty Principle).

    In a conceptual photographic context the art and authorship of photography really come alive and this is what makes it so fascinating and compelling. As photographers we are taking over the creative reigns in a conceptual framework even if based on or in “reality”. The subjective reality of the photographer is what really matters. I do have issue with overt conceptualization to a point of Dadaism. I think the nihilistic and narcissistic tendencies that pop up in conceptual photography from time to time are of limited value today. There is no great need to repeat past artistic movements from the avante-garde art world of the 1920’s in photography. We have the power, presence and capability to revisit the themes which inspired these artistic movements and which are still relevant today and conceive new ways forward. Photography is evolving as is our collective consciousness toward new revolutions of thought. This is where I think the future lies in the appeal and efficacy of photography in a post-post modern world.

  • “I’d be interested in knowing about others’ experiences in this regard? Have you always began with a clear agenda, or do projects grow from an experience, a loose idea, a single photo?”

    The guys and me take photos in the ward all the time ……….then we make the rest of the stuff up,……….. it only takes one photo to get us up there with Walt Disney

  • Imants. Well said, even if I am not entirely sure what the hell you are taking about. Maybe we take ourselves too seriously…know I do.

  • Beautiful, poignant, pictures!

  • Firstly let me thank you to getting involved in a unique and original subject matter. I think the intentions were very genuine and the approach was good.

    However, apart from a handful of strong images, I did not think the overall essay told me much about the vision you were trying to convey through the pictures. Your write-up was much stronger. There were a few images which made the point, but then there were others which had the same feel and repetition. I longed for more images and different approaches. I don’t know how much time you had on this subject, but wished to see more. Would love to hear back from you.

    Thanks for sharing this world through your eyes. Hope my comments help.

  • Wonderful, Beautiful and Sad.

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