LONDON – In 1970, a Weimaraner puppy wandered into William Wegman's life – and studio. Dubbed Man Ray after the Dada artist and photographer (and because he "looked like a little old man") the charismatic dog soon began appearing in Wegman's work, becoming the first in a line of beloved canines to inspire the artist. Ahead of Sotheby's upcoming S|2 exhibition Animal Farm: Beastly Muses and Metaphors, which includes four of Wegman's large-scale images, we spoke with him about Polaroid cameras, his beloved Weimaraners and more. His most recent book, William Wegman: Paintings was published this spring by Abrams.
WILLIAM WEGMAN. PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM MANTOANI.
What about Weimaraners makes them great models?
They’re grey, and grey goes well with anything. Believe it or not, they're also very reflective of their surroundings. So if you have a brown set paper they can look like Vizslas or if you have a blue set they can look like Labs. I think that’s really important to me, the basic mutability of them – the fact that they can transform. You see them as shadows almost. They also love modelling, which lets me play a lot of games. I’ve had ten Weimaraners since 1970 and they all really liked working.
Let’s talk a bit about the work in Sotheby's upcoming Animal Farm exhibition – Sitter (1988), Sold (1988), Twister (1988) and Grey Duo (1994).
The 20x24 Polaroid camera presented a struggle – how do I make a composition that always has to be vertical interesting? That’s probably why I started dressing my dogs and making them tall, to fit into that format. Putting them on things like chairs, tables, pedestals and so forth is another strategy. All of the pictures in the Animal Farm show are 20 x 24. Both Twister and Sold were really challenging for me because I had to accept that there’s negative space, which as a busy and cautious person I’m always afraid of, but now I can see that it works.
WILLIAM WEGMAN, TWISTER, 1988.
What got you started using the 20x24 Polaroid?
It was invented in 1978 to take actual-size portraits one-to-one. Polaroid first sicced it on executives' wives, who were horrified, because it’s not a very flattering lens. If you’re fearless, it’s fine, but if you’re not, beware. I used it on dogs, because they don’t have the same sort of reticence as people. They just go, “Okay” and seem to like the big strobe lights. The other thing is the camera is about three feet off the ground, so you have to bring your subject up to meet the lens. Dogs like to be up high – to be tall, like I am. I also enjoyed the instantaneousness of the Polaroid. The fact that I could see in a minute if we were working correctly or not and then adjust the picture. It’s kind of like my videos – I play them back and say, "Oh I just need to throw this in or change this."
The scale of these images is pretty impressive, too. What about their dimensions appealed to you?
They have amazing detail and quality. It took me awhile to get used to that. I used to only make my pictures 11x14 so they would look good in magazines or books. But I thought it would be interesting to have something that would be powerful on the wall. The 20x24 pictures have a wall presence. Also, now they’re kind of artefacts. The 20x24 camera is not really around anymore. So these pictures are kind of unique in that way.
WILLIAM WEGMAN, SITTER, 1988.
Do you have a process for coming up with different concepts?
I would bring a few objects to the set. With Twister, I had some idea that I’d be echoing the nature of that game, but the other objects – like the Breuer-esque chair in Sitter – were already in the studio. I pose the dogs and I try to think about what could be remarkable or interesting or make sense. The fact that they’re dogs that "stay" nicely when I place them somewhere helps. As pointers, stillness is an innate quality. They love to accommodate and be helpful.
Humour seems to be a common thread in these photographs – is that important for you?
Yes and no. I like the fact that people get that I’m doing something that is somehow more than just visually interesting. And when someone laughs, you know that they got the joke or what you were thinking about. But humour per se is not something I insist on.
WILLIAM WEGMAN, GREY DUO, 1994.
All of these photos are of your second dog, Fay Ray, including Grey Duo, which is of her and her daughter Batty (right). I read that you once called Fay “Garboesque” – how would you describe their poses here?
Yes, Fay was like that and Batty was more comic. When you looked at Batty you would smile. She was very photogenic because of the way her ears folded towards the lens when she’s looked straight at you, like a helmet or hairdo. Fay – you could never laugh at her. She would get mad at you. She was sort of haughty and proud. Fay is pretty young here, so she’s still quite flexible. But as you can see in Sitter, she’s just wedged in there – she wouldn’t get there herself. If something was a little difficult it made her happy. If something was too easy she was like, “I’m not doing anything. Give me more.”
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