William Wegman is a pioneer in the fields of moving image, performance, and photography. Since the 70’s he has charmed us with his signature Weimaraners and his deadpan humor when he began taking photographs of Man Ray, his first Weimaraner. His photographs, videotapes, paintings and drawings have been exhibited in museums and galleries internationally. A retrospective of his work originated by the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne traveled to museums throughout Europe and the United States including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. William Wegman lives in New York and in Maine where he continues to make his art and lives in a pack of eight: his wife, kids and four weims. Welcome to Housepetmagazine.com Mr. Wegman:
Your work with weimaraners is often described as anthropomorphic images. Can you explain us this term?
“Anthro“, in that they are a throwback to ants; “po” (like Edgar Allen) kind of creepy; “morphic” i.e.sleep inducing, dreamy shape shifting. Also…when dressed up and made tall they look like humans. They are hybrid people. Mythological.
How did you decide to get your first weim Man Ray?
I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin Madison when the issue first arose. I promised my wife that when we got to LA next year we would get a dog. Hoping she would forget, she did not. She liked short haired dogs like Dalmatians and that’s what we first looked for. Some said,” Weimaraners are good dogs, and they have short hair”. We found a litter advertised in the Long Beach newspaper for 35$. That seemed like a good price. We saw the dogs. There was only one male. She wanted a male. I flipped a coin. Five times in a row, tails. When I brought him home to our house in San Pedro (in 1970), he was sitting in a ray of light. He looked like a man. “Man Ray’!
How did your collaboration begin with Man Ray?
Our new puppy and my interest in photo and video as art mediums were practically coincidental. In retrospect it seems inevitable that he would become such a focus of my work. That he sat still and gazed at me, that he was neutral gray, that he pointed and retrieved… all these were factors in the longevity of our collaboration.
Can you tell us about your current dogs?
My current cast includes offspring from my second dog, Fay Ray. Fay is represented in several children’s books including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, ABC and others. A biography published by Hyperion a few years after her death in l995. Her off spring Batty, Chundo and Crooky were magnificent performers who were born into their work. Like a family of actors. I didn’t really train them. As with all my actors, training is on the job. Now I have Chip, Batty’s son; Chip’s son Bobbin, his mate Candy and their daughter, Penny. Penny is much like Batty who died at age l4 last year. Perhaps [Penny} appears sweeter in photographs but less comic, less droll. Bobbin is like Chip, handsome but less forlorn. This is because his skin is tight.
One of your past exhibitions “The Look, Images of Style and Glamour” displayed stunning images of your Weimaraners as fashion models with all the attitude of their human counterparts. What makes them such wonderful models?
Weimaraners have a kind of blank, cool look, the look fashion models generally adopt on the runway. And then there is the color. Gray. Gray they say goes with anything so weimaraners are the perfect fashion models. Blankness, neutrality, one can write on them over and over. You can’t do that with a golden retriever, dalmation or bull dog. They have only one story. And then there is the posture. That for me is the pictorial challenge. How to put human clothes on the canine form. In that challenge the real artistic struggle and quest for resolution lies. That’s where the fun is, and the solutions are varied. If you look at individual photographs you will understand what I’m trying to say. Keep in mind I don’t use photoshop. Like magicians I work point of view of audience, or in this case, lens.
When choosing fashion for your weims, do you have a favorite designer?
Miyake is the best designer for my weimaraners. His forms wonderfully expand to adapt to theirs. But I love shopping in thrift stores. When I do, I’m aware that I am ruminating about style and palette. The thought process evolves as I shop.
Do you find your art work with dogs sentimental? Especially if you raised the litter yourself.
I am in love with my dogs. When you photograph someone you are making a map of them in a way. Switch back to life and you see them in a new way. The map helps you know them and you get more and more attached. When Man Ray was ill and near the end I was desperate to get a last picture. What would it be? A loving portrait? A commemorative coin? The funniest one ever? All week at the Polaroid studio in Boston we worked together on this but as it turned out my mother took the final shot . Man Ray and I are sitting on the front steps of our house in Western. Mass where I grew up. Yes, it is sentimental. now I live with four dogs. Chip, his son Bobbin . Bobbin”s mate Candy and their daughter Penny, who is now l8 months. I recently had to put down Batty, Chips mother. It was the first time I had to do that and it was not easy. My vet said it was a great thing to be able to do. Humans are not so lucky. A lifeless body is different than one with life. Anyone who has done this knows what I mean.
Your weims are among the most recognizable art images of the 20th century. How do you keep their stamina?
A common misunderstanding is that the dogs work hard. No. We work hard, my assistants especially the one crammed in an extreme position behind the dog presenting limbs to appear attached. The dogs are usually sitting, like dogs do and only for seconds. It takes 1/60th of a sec to take a picture. It takes a lot of time to set it up. The dogs are standing by in the green room (the couch) waiting for their call. Some dogs are more actively eager to be in front of the camera but all crave the attention. At least mine are.
Would you like to tell us about your new projects?
My new projects: A retrospective of my work including paintings, drawings, photos and video opens March 10 2006 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A book published by Yale in time for the exhibition serves as the catalogue. I’m hoping to write a book based on my film, The Hardly Boys. I’ll probably work on it this spring and finish it in the year 2030.
Thank you very much for the time you’ve put into this interview Mr. Wegman, and much more for all the amazing photographs you’ve brought to us.