LIFE : Hansel Mieth - Rhesus Monkey
Rhesus Monkey, Santiago Island off Puerto Rico. Photograph by Hansel Mieth © 1939 Time Inc.
The picture of the monkey has been published so often, I call him the monkey on my back. It was taken in 1939 for a story on a Harvard Medical School project in Puerto Rico to study monkeys. One afternoon all the doctors were away, and a little kid came running to me and said, “A monkey's in the water.”
I came down, and that monkey was really going hell-bent for something. “He is not coming back,” I said. “I better go in and get him.” I don't know why I was such a policeman, but I threw my Rolleiflex on my back and swam out.
I’d stand on the coral reef every so often and then swim again. Finally, I was facing the monkey. I don't think he liked me, but he sat on that coral reef there, and I took about a dozen shots.
To me it looks like the monkey's depicting the state of the world at the time. It was dark and somber and angry. There were a lot of dark clouds swirling around. I heard from many people that they were scared when they looked at it. I have given a number of prints away. Somebody brought one in a Sotheby's auction. It sold for $6,400.
Do you think photography is an art?
It is a number of things. If you are an Ansel Adams or an Edward Weston, it's an art. But only that. End. But if you work with people, it has to be much more than art, and practically the only thing I work in is people.
You have to know how to read things in what’s happening. When something comes into the face, into the eyes, you have to snap it very fast, otherwise you’ve lost it. But when you talk about it being art, actually I don't agree with that. Whether or not it is art, it’s photography. You observe and decide what will make a picture. There are many things that I look for. Every story is a little different.
Take the Dionne quintuplets, for example.
Oh, I thought that would come up. [Laughs]
Do you mind?
What is it for me to mind or not to mind? The Hearst photographer was there at the same time, and he lined the quints up, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, on the steps for the daily papers. I thought it was kind of corny, but I stood next to him and asked him to let me take that picture too. I just wondered what our editors will do with a thing such as that. By God, they ran it on the cover.
(Interviewed on August 15, 1993. Excerpted from: John Loengard, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Boston, A Bullfinch Press Book, 1998)
[The photographs, by Hansel Mieth © 1939 Time Inc. and 1940 Time Inc., are courtesy The LIFE Gallery of Photography.]