William Wegman: Unleashed

The photographer famous for dressing up his dogs as fashion models and fairy-tale characters on why Weimaraners are the perfect subjects. Indeed, grey goes with everything…


William Wegman: Unleashed

Spray-painted silver and gold like a Warhol art star. Garbed in head-to-toe haute couture. Enveloped in kaleidoscopic pom poms to look like—gasp!—a poodle. William Wegman’s Weimaraners have sat and stayed for their master’s lens since the ’70s. But the photographer famous for his portraits of anthropomorphised dogs is a brilliant conceptual artist in his own right. An absurdist thread winds through his oeuvre (painting, drawing, collage, film, 20×24 Polaroids and, more recently, digital photography) at once taunting and haunting the art world. His dogs are photogenic props in this, er, waggish work. So with a recent spread in UK magazine Man About Town, and a new campaign for Swedish label Acne, we caught up with Wegman to find out why his Weimaraners are the perfect aesthetic subjects. Indeed, grey goes with everything…

You were an artist before you started photographing dogs. Were you always a dog person?
In retrospect I think I always was. When I went away to art school, the dog who was given to me in my Christmas stocking when I was six years old couldn’t come with me. I was an artist in my mid-’20s when I got Man-Ray. It was around the time I moved from true photography, video and performance art to just taking photographs. This dog was pretty young, only six weeks old, so he bonded with me in a very intense way. He would get stressed if I wasn’t looking at him every second!

May-Ray was a pet before a subject. How did he come to be featured in your work?
It was hard not to include him. I would bring him to my studio in California and tie him up in the corner, but he would whine and chew things. I noticed that when I focused the camera on him—both still and video—he became really interested in what I was doing. I imagine that’s what happens with a hunting dog: When a hunter is loading ammo, his dog knows he’s doing something serious and becomes calm. So Man-Ray became really workable. And the fact that he was so spooky looking turned me on to finding ways to use him, even though I had an aversion to cute dog photographs because while my work was funny, I was very serious about it.

The Village Voice named Man-Ray “Man of the Year” in 1982. After his loss, did you look for another Weimaraner who had the makings of a star?
I wasn’t. I thought it was the end. It was a heartbreaking finale to our 12 years of working together. I didn’t get Fay-Ray for another three years, and didn’t want to work with her at first. I thought it would be kind of contaminating to the work that I had done with Man-Ray. I thought it would be wrong…but it wasn’t!

I think partly because the dogs look so intense and the concept is so uncanny, your work avoided being regarded as gimmicky.
At one time, I wanted to avoid anthropomorphism. Then I embraced it with Fay-Ray, but even when I dressed her up it was more eerie than cute. She looked almost sinister, like the hybrid creatures from mythology. I was working with a large-format Polaroid camera, which is the size of a refrigerator. It’s always vertical so I had put Fay-Ray on a table to look taller, with fabric hung over her. My assistant was behind her to keep the fabric from falling, and I could only see her hands. So it looked like Fay was talking to me, which was hilarious and very weird! So I took that picture and thought it was exciting and a little dangerous. Like a lot of my work, I recognised something accidentally.

Do you anthropomorphise your dogs in real life, too?
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Man-Ray was thinking. I remember spending all day following him instead of him following me. It’s really remarkable how alive their senses are. Certainly through smell, but their vision is so different too because they use their heads like we use our hands so they can see sideways and upside down. But yes, it is irresistible to throw human words into their brains and think of them as your children, even though I have my own children and I know that it’s different!

Your work has featured Fay’s descendants over the years. Have they all been natural-born talents?
They all have their quirks. May-Ray was male and kind of massive. Fay was very skittish. I think maybe a garage door fell on her before I got her! If someone tripped over a light stand, she would practically be foaming at the mouth. She was powerful but also very fragile.

It was remarkable when Fay had a litter of eight puppies and I ended up working closely with three of them. Batty became Cinderella to Fay, the Fairy Godmother [Fay’s Fairy Tales]. Crooky, for her crooked tail, was Batty’s opposite. Batty was narcoleptic but Crooky was super alert. I paired them together in the film The Hardly Boys, a parody on The Hardy Boys.

Chip, Batty’s son, was amazing in that you could put anything on him and he would not mind at all…so I ended up putting lots of things on him because he was so accommodating!

One of my dogs now, Candy, is 11 and I finally figured out how to use her. She is very agile but if I put her up, she would jump right down. So now I use her in motion. I’ve sent her flying through the air. I’ve given her extreme acrobatic stunts to do and she really enjoys the degree of difficulty. My other dogs are more poised.

Flo and Topper are very physical and quite beautiful, like beautiful sculptures. Flo really loves to work. I would put her next to Penny—who recently died but was an amazing model—just to have the experience, and she got kind of addicted to it. So I always look for what the dog brings, and go with that…

They have donned designer duds by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Helmut Lang, Alexander McQueen and Anna Sui, to name a few. Do your dogs have expensive tastes or do you go thrifting? And how do you decide who wears what?
The first designer clothing collaboration came a short time after the yard sale, thrift store garb of the fairy-tale period. I think it may have been Moschino—for an AIDS benefit. Over the years, I have used lots of borrowed designer pieces. Issey Miyake works really well on the dogs as sculpture. Bobbin is an aging stud so he looks great in menswear. Topper, the youngest, is surprisingly boyish and striking as a male model. Flo is the most eager and can be stunning.

How is the photographer/subject relationship more intimate than owner/dog?
I think I fell in love with Flo when she started doing things that I didn’t expect from her. She’s a difficult dog to live with—she’s loud, she’s busy, she’s an alpha bitch!—but when it comes to working, she cares so much about it and is so proud to be doing it, that it’s kind of heartbreaking. And then, when you look at the photographs, the image kind of burns into your mind and they become your muse.

You once, in the late ’80s, said that you felt “nailed to the dog cross.” But recent shows—Hello Nature, Drawings for a Better Tomorrow and a Worse Yesterday and The Traveler—feature your paintings and drawings over the years, sans dogs. In retrospect, are you happy with the balance of dog and non-dog work?
I am; I’ve really come to terms with that. In 1978 I didn’t work with dogs at all, which was important but not fun. Now it’s fun! Things have come around to making sense in my work as a whole. There’s enough of it, and enough time has gone by. The lines of my work are arching in a way that they interestingly come together now and then.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a children’s book of Flo as a puppy, where I painted around the photographs [Penguin]. I’m publishing two other books soon after, so there should be a big splash of publicity in the fall. I’m also working on some large paintings for a show in Sweden in late May…

All images courtesy of William Wegman
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Clément Sanna is drawn to unusual and, sometimes, uncomfortable topics that blur fact with fiction.