A pioneer of video art and conceptualism in the 1970s, American artist William Wegman has had his paintings, photographs, videos and drawings displayed in museums and galleries around the world. But he is most famous for his photographs of Weimaraner dogs, posing for individual portraits or pictured together in a whole host of elaborate set-ups.
William Wegman’s book, William Wegman: Being Human, the most extensive collection of Wegman’s photographic work to date, brings together over 300 images made over the past four decades. Here he explains his extraordinary collaboration with his dogs, and how it became such a prominent part of his artistic life.
‘In 1970 I got my first Weimaraner, Man Ray. He was just six weeks old, and so impressionable – he identified with humans more than dogs. He really thought he was a person, I think. He would come to my studio, and drove me crazy with this high-pitched whine. But when I pointed my camera at him he was really calm and quiet.’
Some of your best known photographs feature dogs dressed up as human types. How did that start?
‘I had an initial aversion to anything anthropomorphic. But in one of the last photographs I did with Man Ray I put an Indian headdress on him and sent him off in a canoe.
With my second dog, Fay, I remember putting a cloth around her in an attempt to turn her into an architectural detail. My assistant was helping me, and it seemed like her arms were attached to Fay. This creature suddenly looked like she had a dress on with arms. It was so funny, and believable that I developed that. I began to cast the dogs as certain characters – in my art, but also in fairy tale books I created for children.’
So the look and personality of different dogs can determine the photographs you make?
‘Absolutely, I had a dog called Penny who was very small and sweet, she had this adorable toy-like quality to her, and a stillness. I turned her into ornaments, such as Christmas decorations. She gave you the armature of her body and let you adorn it.
Batty, Fay’s number one daughter was sexy and dreamy. She did all the images with high fashion. On set she was kind of narcoleptic. I made this photograph with her where she is draped in a chair. The angle of her head and her long legs made that work so well. Others I had were so pliable they were like working with clay. I could make them into a dog alphabet by coiling them on the floor like blankets.’
What is it like, collaborating with this type of dog in particular?
‘Weimaraners are pointer retrievers, so they have this stillness in the field. When they see a bird they don’t run after it, they just point to where it is, the opposite to a herding dog which tries to get you into a position. There are lots of little tricks I have learned to get them to perform in certain ways. The current dogs I have like looking at me. If I want them to look evil, for instance, I walk far away and they will squint – it looks sinister! If I walk up closer they get soft and beamy.’
So many of your photographs were taken with a large format 20×24 Polaroid camera. How did that contribute to the evolution of your work?
‘I was invited to use it in 1978 in the Polaroid studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The camera had just been invented. I was transfixed. You could see the results instantly, or in 70 seconds, at least. You could pin the image up on the wall, see what you felt, then try something else. You can really develop a work that way. It’s why I ended up in many different areas I think.’
There’s an enormous variety of photographs including elaborate compositional pieces with several dogs. It’s clearly not all been about set-piece portraits?
‘Sometimes I would get annoyed with dressed up dogs. I used to think, “I’m going to clean up my act and get minimal.” The dogs are allowed on my furniture, of course – they’re allowed everywhere. I remember once thinking they looked like boulders, all grouped together. If you look at them on a certain level and ignore the heads they’re sort of landscapey. Against different paper backgrounds they can look like water, or desert, or mountains.’