Who doesn’t know the cute and humorous photographs by “the guy with the dogs,” William Wegman ?
Before Wegman started taking photographs of his dogs, he had been an accomplished conceptual artist. He earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting and only in the late sixties did he start creating photographs. In the seventies, he turned towards videos. His amusing and clever videos deal with more profound and thoughtful matters. But they also show a certain playfulness that tone down the satirical undertone of the work.
Cotto, a minimalist photograph of circles, demonstrates Wegman’s change in his perception of art as he became a minimalist conceptual artist. He admits that he had “never [taken] a photograph like that, that was so graphically strong” and continued by saying that the photograph had “cleared [his] mind.” From then on, Wegman started to cut out any unnecessary items to obtain a formal simplicity.In 1970 when Wegman moved to Los Angeles, he acquired his first Weimeraner puppy. Once Man Ray, named after the famous artist , had grown up he started to play a pivotal role in Wegman’s work. During the seventies, Wegman became well known for his photographs of Man Ray. In his works, he used intricate concepts as well as humor, irony and satire directed at both the high culture of contemporary art as well as at popular culture.
Right from the start Wegman realized that Man Ray was an excellent model. It did not matter what poses or situations he put the dog in, he always exuded a gentle nobility and calm countenance. This juxtaposition creates the absurd tones of the photographs. It almost seems as if the dog was an accomplice in creating the photograph. Wegman feels that in a way Man Ray could have been considered as an object since he would look at the dog and ask himself how he would use Man Ray in the picture. This would not be possible when photographing a person. Wegman adds by saying that he could “manipulate him [although] he [didn’t] feel manipulated, so he [felt] he [was] doing something he [was] supposed to do or having fun, one of the two.” At first Wegman would not make a distinction between working with Man Ray and working with something else. At the time he was only concentrating on creating clear conceptual artworks.In 1978, when Wegman felt overwhelmed by the demand for his dog photographs, he decided to take a break and not photograph Man Ray for a whole year. As a result, he admits that both of them became miserable. Wegman describes himself during that time as a “sort of … strange, sad, lonely, hibernating sort of person who was antisocial and just wanted to make my own drawings and little crazy pictures. And everyone excused me for that because, of course, I was an artist and I was supposed to be crazy and reclusive.”
Then in 1979 Wegman started experimenting with a large-format instant film camera, which had been recently developed by Polaroid. Some critics say that this “hyper-realistic medium [is] highly paradoxical to the contrived situations in which Man Ray was placed.” At first Wegman was suspicious of the color film and treated it as though it was black and white, using a black backdrop for Ray, who already had dark colored fur. But slowly color started to creep into his photographs. This can be seen in images like Fey Ray. He felt it was okay to use color in minimal amounts such as on the dog’s toenails and having the small bottle of nail polish in the shot. He wanted to avoid that people thought he was using color in a subjective manner. When Man Ray passed away in 1982, Wegman decided not to get another dog and to concentrate on other art projects.
But in 1985 he met another Weimaraner, and this time it was a cinnamon-colored puppy girl. He named her Fay Ray, a play on words alluding to the actress Fay Wray, as well as his previous dog. He vowed to never photograph Fay but of course failed in that attempt. And so a new partnership developed between Wegman and Fay. It took Wegman a little time to realize that both dogs were quite different. Even though Man Ray was quite distinguished, he was still a “guy dog,” as Wegman describes him. Fay did not like being shoved around while playing the way Man Ray used to. Wegman sums up their differences as “Man Ray [having] been dignified, stately and solemn [and] Fay [having] a quality [he] describe[s] as chameleon-like.”When Fay Ray had her litter of puppies, not only Wegman’s life but also that of the rest of his family was radically changed and now seems to be centered on the dogs. The family even kept their dogs in mind when they renovated their home in New York City. Wegman has several assistants and they will take the dogs for walks when he is unable to do so. At the same time he also disapproves of the dogs being treated like stars but he does not treat them like pets either. To him they are just “fellow beings with whom he and his family share a space.”
The New Britain Museum of American Art acquired Faun only a few years ago. This photograph is a beautiful portrait of one of Fay’s offspring. By adorning the dog with a crown of coleus and sedum flowers in this clever and humorous way Wegman gives his dog human attributes. In this photograph the artist refers to the faun – a half-human and either half-goat or half-horse creature from ancient Roman mythology – thereby affirming the dog’s playfulness. By photographing the dog up-close and covering one of his eyes, Wegman emphasizes the charm and adorability of his dog. With Faun Wegman illustrates the lasting relationship that human beings have formed with their dogs for thousands of years. Wegman’s photograph embodies the old proverb that “dog is man’s best friend.”Did you realize that Wegman’s photographs had more depth and were not only created for calenders and such? Can you think of any other photographers that use dogs in their work?