August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

Photographs by Robin Schwartz

Pie-eyed gorillas, sage-looking baboons, mandrills with the implacable features of an African mask—Robin Schwartz’s primates have faces as varied and exotic as orchids. A photographer who specializes in deadpan portraits of dogs and cats, Schwartz focuses this time on apes and monkeys kept as house pets. Natural hams, they put their long-toed feet up in suburban living rooms, pal around with other household animals or prance across sofas in their overalls and diapers. Are they cute? The a-w-w-w factor in a stump-tailed macaque at bath time is not to be denied.

And when they assume something like human expressions—put-upon, self-regarding, pensive—Schwartz’s chimps and orangutans also bring larger matters to mind. Is that the beginning of human intelligence we see in their eyes? Or are we trying to leap a biological divide, straining for some sign of complicated mental states that may not be there? Then again, how much of their beastly nature do we still have in ourselves? With their rubbery mugs—so like ours, but bearing more signs of the wild—apes in captivity have a way of suggesting that humans are just…apes in captivity. When we look at them, are we getting a glimpse of our own reflection in the ancestral gene pool? Schwartz’s work doesn’t answer those questions, but she puts them within reach. It’s not every book of stupid pet tricks that leads you to wonder whether humans are just mammals with mortgages. (Norton, $22.95)

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