Back in 1970, Life magazine ran a cover story that made a tribe of monkeys famous.
© Text and Photos by Michael Freeman
Said ‘snow monkeys’ were bathing in midwinter in a hot spring in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, which Is more what you’d expect from weekending Japanese than monkeys. They’re not actually monkeys, but macaques — well, all right, that means they’re a kind of monkey — but still, it’s a bit odd that they do this. And only these particular ones. It seemed like a scoop for Life and the photographer Co Rentmeester. Here in the wilds of Honshu’s mountains these very smart, or very hedonistic, monkeys had worked out that the local hot springs were a great place to hang out.
Intrigued by this, one cold February, I made the journey with a friend. The place is a small valley, riddled with geysers, and called Jigokudani, which means ‘Hell’s Valley’, and there is, conveniently, an old and very comfortable inn. A few hundred yards up the narrow valley is the pool where the snow monkeys bathe. We bathed, we photographed the snow monkeys, as did hordes of Japanese tourists on Sundays. It snowed, beautifully. We also interviewed the old lady who owned the inn, and learned the story of the snow monkeys.
Years before, in the early 1960s, a sailor had come to stay for weeks, convalescing. Each day he would bathe in the inn’s own open-air hot spring, as I did. You sit there looking out over the valley and the mountains, a geyser spouting steam not far away. Not having much else to do, he took an interest in the macaques who foraged around. Actually, this being winter, they were happily scavenging for whatever they could get, which was quite a bit around an inn.
He would tempt them with snacks as he sat in the hot spring, not a difficult task at all. Then he got the idea of tempting them into the water, and eventually succeeded with tidbits. The macaques didn’t mind this much at all. They got free food and a hot bath. The price to pay was getting out into the freezing cold and back into the snow-covered forest, but hey, nothing’s perfect.
They gradually became an attraction. The only problem, however, was that they had a fairly scant idea of polite human behaviour, let alone obsessive Japanese social etiquette. Defecating in the pool was under-appreciated by the inn’s paying guests. Finally, the owner, the old lady we were talking to, decide that the best thing all round would be to build a separate pool up the valley for the monkeys. Then her guests could have the best of both worlds.
What on earth does this have to do with white balance? Well, as you see, the picture, shot balanced to sunlight, is bluish, and that’s deliberate. It looks colder that way, and indeed was cold. Getting out of a hot bath on a freezing day is no fun (the park rangers still have to tempt the macaques with food to come and bathe).